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Month: May 2011

Timber Timbre has a creepy clarity of vision

Creep On Creepin’ On is an excellent name for Timber Timbre‘s latest full-length, as the word “creep” serves multiple purposes. In addition to being a fun pun (underlying the hidden but totally there pop sensibilities), the songs here creep along at slow paces and are purposefully eerie.

At first blush, Timber Timbre’s 2010 tourmates (Jonsi and The Low Anthem, both IC favorites) seem to be mismatches for Timber Timbre’s weird-folk sound. Nick Cave might tap them, or maybe even M. Ward on a grumpy day, but the transcendent pop tunes of Jonsi? The hymnal folk of The Low Anthem?

Yet after several listens, the doo-wop pop influences started to sink in (“Lonesome Hunter,” “Black Water”) . The purposefully murky arrangements congealed in my mind as purposeful choices. There may be skronking horns, shrieking strings, and heartbeat bass marking instrumentals like “Swamp Magic” and “Souvenirs,” but “Black Water” is a straight-up pop song that starts off with Taylor Kirk singing, “All I need is some sunshine.” Not a very creepy sentiment at all.

Then, somewhere around that time, the complexity and beauty of the arrangements shone through. I suddenly realized that it’s an indie-rock in the original sense of the word: a band doing what it feels like doing. No trends are being followed here. This is a take-it-or-leave-it enterprise, and it’s all the better for it. The fact that it’s hard for me to describe is good.

That’s not to say that there are no easy points of entry. “Too Old to Die Young” is a jam that could have been on a “with strings!” version of Good News For People Who Love Bad News if M. Ward was singing. Kirk has a low voice, but when he puts it in a higher range, it starts to sound like the vintage-obsessed singer/songwriter. Which is fitting, because Timber Timbre mines old horror/suspense films idioms to create the more out-there pieces of Creep On Creepin’ On.

If hearing a singular songwriting vision fully completed excites you, Timber Timbre’s Creep On Creepin’ On should be on your list to check out. It’s a bit confusing on first listen, but give it some time and it will grow on you. Here’s to indie rock.

Leonard Mynx’s morose vocal mastery takes a trip through roots rock

Leonard Mynx’s last album Vesper was a stately wonder, composed of hopelessly depressing folk songs that hung on every note he let fall from his mouth. It was an absolutely riveting album, if an unsettling one. Son of the Famous So and So finds him in a more upbeat idiom, and while it’s less discomforting, it’s less attention-grabbing as well.

Like Dylan went, so goes Mynx; there’s a lot more instrumentation here, and if it can’t exactly be called rock, it’s something close. There’s intimations of everyone from Tom Waits to Bob Seger here (On “Sing Radio,” Mynx calls up both), making for a mini-tour of American roots rock. Son has its own charms and joys, but it inches a little closer toward what the rest of the folk world is doing right now.

Mynx has shifted his focus from vocal melodies to overall songwriting. It doesn’t seem like a big deal until you hear how different “Stolen” and “Last Time” sound. The forlorn horns of “Stolen” accent the vocal performance; the horns of “Last Time” are part of the structure (along with bass/acoustic guitar/electric guitar/drums/piano/organ) that rope in Mynx’s vocals.

Even the gorgeous, relatively stark “My Old Friend” fits Mynx’s vocals into a song, a departure from his former idea of letting the vocals dominate the proceedings. The result is a collection of tunes that mid-to-late-era Dylan fans will love, both for vocal and instrumental reasons.

“Stolen” and “Sail On” best reference his last album with haunting moods created by letting his voice and lyrics paint the whole scene. The lyrical structure on Son is modified to fit the new songwriting style, meaning that he’s less a literal storyteller than a scene painter on much of the album. “Sail On” dispels that, returning to his wordy, lengthy lyrical style that I love.  He sticks a beautiful acoustic coda there, too; major props to that.

“Miss You” best matches his morose mastery of drawn-out, creaky vocal performances with his new songwriting idiom. It is easily the best song on the album, hinting that the best is yet to come from Leonard Mynx.

Son of the Famous So and So never drops below “solid.”  “Stolen,” “Sail On” and “Miss You” are next-level pieces that stand up next to tracks by Iron and Wine, Bon Iver and Damien Jurado; the rest are average-to-good pieces that show a (hopefully) transitional stage in Mynx’s songwriting. Leonard Mynx is an artist you need to watch closely; he’s right on the verge of breaking through.

Quick hits: Sunday Lane

Sunday Lane’s cheery, playful piano-pop is easy to enjoy. While not as idiosyncratic as Regina Spektor, Lane has a easy confidence that could easily place her in the conversation with charmers like Spektor, Ingrid Michaelson and Lenka. Her mid-range voice is expressive without being overdramatic, which allows songs like “A Little Hope” and “Lack of Color” to take a step back from the early-2000s maudlin that Vanessa Carlton and Michelle Branch mired the decade’s female singer/songwriters in. It’s a similar sound, but it doesn’t cloy.

The EP’s title “Bring Me Sunshine” comes from aforementioned standout “Lack of Color,” which has solid melodies and a nice counterpoint to bring the track home. “Reckless One” features the next most memorable tune, as well as a string section that will almost certainly divide audiences on the “love it/hate it” axis.

Bring Me Sunshine is a solid EP that toes the edge of overdramatic. Fans of the aforementioned female singer/songwriters will find much to love here. There’s no clear indicator of where she’s headed from this EP, but she’s worth tracking to find out.

Like Clockwork shows erratic flashes of pop brilliance on These Are All Things

I’ve been expecting These Are All Things to come out for a little over three years, which is about a third of the time this blog has been around. So, when Like Clockwork (aka Jesse Owen Astin) finally unveiled it, I did what I do with all my long-awaited albums: I listened to it in my car, while driving. After the first listen, I had one thought firmly implanted in my head: What?!

I’ve known for as long as I’ve been listening to Like Clockwork that Astin has wide-ranging interests. He’s got modern rock, acoustic pop, dance-rock, modern pop and more in his pocket. I didn’t know which direction These Are All Things would go. The answer: all of them.

And that is one of the hardest parts to swallow about the release: it’s so varied that it barely holds together. If you threw three darts at a visual interpretation of the album, you would not hit songs that sound anything like each other. “Patience Patients” opens the set with an acoustic lead-in to a modern rock piece. “Keys” is a dark number with a pressing drum machine that makes me think of She Wants Revenge. “Oh My God!” traps one of the best pop choruses of the year inside a grating intro and long, spoken-word outro. “I Want a Family” is a gripping, devastating acoustic track that is the hands-down best song Like Clockwork has ever written.

And the whole album goes like that, dropping in and out of Astin’s interests at will. This diversity is almost certainly due to the fact that it came together over such a long period; there’s no sense of timeliness to the album at all. There are, however, thematic elements in the lyrics that tie it together.

Astin’s really concerned with love here, but not with the wishy-washy, infatuation love that the radio gets so hyped on. He ties his concept of love into religion, which is featured prominently in the lyrical matter. “Jesus Christ Crashing Star” features poet Trace William Cowen reading a poem that denounces God as dying with Santa Claus, and points to the omnipresence of love as what people are seeking. Astin’s grandmother gives her take on the outro of  “The Dark,” while the last minute of “Oh My God!” is dedicated to a  clip of a speech proclaiming that “there’s only one people, one nation, one religion, one ideology, and that’s love.”

“Jesus Christ Crashing Star” backs up to standout track “I Want a Family” as the emotional center of the album, putting the idea of “no religion but love” in the album’s crux (“No Other Word For Love” also has this sentiment).

There are also a few tunes that deal with a breakup, as well as thoughts on growing up. It seems that These Are All Things is Astin’s bildungsroman album; and as coming of age is never a neat and tidy process, perhaps the wide-ranging sounds on the release best mirror what was happening in his life at the time.

Another intriguing aspect of this album is this: I was given what amounts to the first draft. After hearing some thoughts on the record, Astin cut out several tracks (including the worst offender) and added the rock track “Be Your Man” at the end, which wraps all of his tendencies (rock, pop, emotionality, distorted guitar, acoustic guitar, even a touch of dance) into one song that completes the album perfectly. It doesn’t make the individual parts mesh with each other better, but it does bring a bit of togetherness to the whole work.

In the end, These Are All Things has several brilliant tracks (“I Want a Family,” the center of “Oh My God!”, “Be Your Man”) and a lot of good ideas scattered throughout a wildly diverse album. These Are All Things is an incredible title for the album, because each song feels like its own thing.

Astin released the album a song at a time over at his Bandcamp; I can’t think of a better way to experience this album than a song at a time over weeks. Try it yourself that way, and see what happens.

Aaron Robinson's mature pop is poignant and powerful without being maudlin

Aaron Robinson is one of my favorite songwriters. Surprisingly, this is an objective statement as well as a subjective one: my Last.FM declares that I’ve played the demo of his excellent tune “Price is Right” 125 times. It hasn’t tracked the numerous times I’ve spun Robinson’s A Dying Art EP, because my home iTunes isn’t scrobbling right (suck). My all-time plays puts him above Regina Spektor and just below Mates of State. Pretty good company.

And with A Dying Art, Robinson has upped his game. He’s become a master of making infectious melodies out of serious pop music; much “adult” music becomes maudlin or watered down in an attempt to relate, and Robinson doesn’t do that here. Robinson has crafted five adult pop tunes here that are all catchy, but none in a bright-shiny pop way. His control of mood is impressive, to maintain a weary-yet-determined feel while singing stuff that you genuinely want to hum.

Robinson’s lithe voice helps. He’s got a comfortable tenor with a good range, and a gentle falsetto (“You Will Be Called Home”). It’s the type of voice that makes it seem as if he’s not even trying to sing — he just opens his mouth and the notes fall out.

But the songwriting is what’s incredible here. “Price is Right” is a master pop song, matching earnest thoughts of religion and weariness to a distant tom beat and delicate electric guitar work before opening up into a full arrangement that I could live inside. I have had entire seasons of my life that were “Price is Right.” I can give no higher praise.

“You Will Be Called Home” employs a similar template and mood to great effect. “Short Division” is a folkier tune, similar to those on his debut “We Are Racing Ghosts” and indicative of his Nashville home. “Heaven Sent You” gets a bit Mayer-esque for my tastes, but it never devolves into blues guitar heroics, so I’ll let it pass. Girls will love it (you can guess from the title just why). The lyrics, however, are above average for this sort of song.

The title track is the real revelation, though. I’ve had this demo for a while, but I’ve never really seen past its easygoing strum and nice harmonies. The lyrics hit hard. Aaron Robinson truly has created a well-rounded tune with this one, and if it’s a little less poignant than “Price is Right,” it’s only because of the charming “do-doo-doo” section. It’s an endearing bit — just not emotionally killer like “Price is Right.” You can underestimate it if you’re not paying attention.

This five-song EP of adult pop is some of the most poignant, clear, melodically powerful pop I’ve heard ever. I usually try to hang the “folk” tag on a band so I can not admit that I like adult alternative pop, but man, if Aaron Robinson can churn out songs this good in the genre, sign me up as a pop fan. You need to hear this album, and you can, at his Bandcamp.

Dying art? psssh. Not while Robinson’s around.

Cosmonauts’ theatrical rock is ready for the big time

With an EP named The Disfiguration of Emily Malone and tunes named “The Rapist of Hemingway Home,” “The Funeral of Allison J. Sherman,” and “The Lovers of Kerosene Lane,” you’d be forgiven if you think at first glance that Cosmonauts is some sort of brutal metal band. Instead, the band creates radio-perfect rock’n’roll that draws on the history of pop music and shares ideas with My Chemical Romance.

First things first: I really enjoy My Chemical Romance, so that’s praise in the previous paragraph. MCR does a great job of creating breakneck tunes that straddle the line between theatrical and over-the-top while crafting immediately memorable melodies. While Cosmonauts may have some room to grow in the “immediate melodies” category, everything else lines up neatly.

The four songs here are 25 minutes long, and the shortest of them is 4:51. The band has no censor, and that’s mostly for the better. Opener “The Rapist of Hemingway Home” is a distorted doo-wop tune, complete with soaring French horn in the non-chord-mashing parts. The title track is an AFI-esque soaring rocker, which fits them quite well.

But it’s in “The Lovers of Kerosene Lane” that the band excels. The nine-minute track has the most gripping melody of the batch, a motif that is repeated with multiple phrases (“Kerosene,” “Loving me,” “Burning me,” etc.). You will have it stuck in your head, don’t worry. It starts off with a punked-out MCR rager, but then drops into a piano waltz before jumping off to other things. Yes, the band has MCR’s love for unusual genres as well.

Cosmonauts’ vocals are high, but not boyishly high. The vocalist strikes a neat analogue to Gerard Way; the tenor tone is not quite as fervent, but tones of condescension and desperation are easily noted as similar.

These songs have a lot of stuff packed into them, and while Cosmonauts does stretch its chaos out over larger palettes than MCR (who usually pack their insanity into four minute chunks), there’s still enough whipsaw changes to make any fan of theatrical rock grin. If Cosmonauts could trim their song lengths a bit, they’d be a shoo-in on radio. This band is ready for the big time.

Suavity's Mouthpiece pushes the boundaries of its experimental pop

I really enjoy reviewing multiple releases by the same artist, band or performer, as it’s fun to see how things change (or don’t). Suavity’s Mouthpiece vs. Music is the second release by the band that I’ve had the pleasure of reviewing, after The Passion of Suavity’s Mouthpiece. And boy, did they ever change.

While there were industrial undertones in The Passion, the majority of it was based around big band sounds. In Vs. Music, the palette is flipped; there are horn undertones, but it’s primarily an industrial/electro release. From the grinding, dissonant tones of “Sex Me Into a Straightjacket” to erratic synths of “Fire Me (Again),” this whole release is much more brittle and brutal than Suavity’s previous work.

This means that, intended or not, this is a lot closer to what people would consider rock than before (which was almost entirely absent in the first release). Just see “I Get Abstract,” which sounds somewhat like Mindless Self-Indulgence. Granted, MSI isn’t normal either, but everything’s relative in experimental music.

Songwriter J. Trafford’s chaotic sense of arrangement still holds; these songs are not for the faint of ear. Some of them sound like audio car wrecks in the amount of abrupt changes, without even mentioning the noises created. But, as in the previous release, it doesn’t seem the work of an inept composer — just an incredibly idiosyncratic one. This is best proven on “Fox Kraski,” which is proof that, if he feels like it, Suavity’s Mouthpiece can write a normal, pretty pop song.

Then again, “Crisis Welcomed” pairs some of the most painful noises SM has made with some of the most normal rhythms, making for an incredibly odd tension. “I Don’t Know Shit” is simply uncategorizable.

Suavity’s Mouthpiece vs. Music is definitely recommended for fans of experimental music. Trafford has a vision for his music, and this is the second time I’ve heard him bear that out in a hi-fi, well-recorded, totally crazy release.

Derek Porter's second volume of Strangers is quite strange, in a good way

Derek Porter’s Strangers, Vol. 1 was a atmospheric, folky affair that called up Bon Iver comparisons. Strangers, Vol. 2 is an experimental pop affair that has almost nothing to do with the warm tones and acoustic guitars of the first installation. This doesn’t mean that it’s bad, but it’s certainly an adjustment the listener has to make.

Porter’s new sound revels in juxtapositions, unusual sounds and unexpected chord changes. “Roger the Engineer” features a catchy chorus (“Lord, can’t take much more of this!”) that subverts expectations by swinging up at the end to an unusual chord. Then there’s the frantic, interesting outro, that shows up, is awesome, and then leaves before I wish it would.

Then again, “All is Loss” is a pretty standard piano tune that is not that far off from Vol. 1. But then the Lou Reed-influenced “When I Forget My Name” ratchets up the unusual again. It’s not totally avant-garde; just enough to keep listeners on their toes. But then “I’ve Been Walking” and “Tongue in Cheek” are jazzy lounge pieces, and full avant-garde pop returns with the seven-minute “Chestnut Tree” balancing morose atmospherics seemingly straight out of Vol. 1 with weird, Grandaddy-esque pop that abruptly stops and starts. It’s the best of the seven, as it meshes what I expected with the new thing he wanted to say.

And then it’s over. It is a bizarre little journey, but it’s one that leaves me scratching my head and repeating it, instead of scratching my head and deleting it. I’m not sure where Derek Porter is going or what he wants to be, but the tunes he turns out keep my interest. That’s for sure.

The Body Rampant's modern rock has a more-than-Transient spark

The Body Rampant‘s Framework EP set down three songs that drew tight connections to Anberlin’s modern rock work. Their new EP Transient Years builds on that EP literally and figuratively.

The band added three new songs to the trio from Framework to complete the six-song release. The new songs fit in nicely with the previous work, not straying too far from the charging guitars/enormous drums combo. There are some nice guitar riffs throughout, but the band isn’t too obsessed with guitar heroics to pigeonhole it over there. The band’s main concern is the interplay between the vocal melodies and guitar melodies, and to that end, they do an excellent job.

The jumping off point for their future is “Living in Spurts,” which incorporates tasteful synthesizer as part of their modern rock mix. It doesn’t turn the song into a dance-rock tune, which is great; it merely provides another piece of the song to enjoy. That’s a sure sign of maturity, to resist hot trends for the sake of your vision. “Indica” does a similar thing, but not to as prominent a role.

Let’s hope that they keep having that vision and grow into it for the long haul. I think they could, as these songs have a spark that not many modern rock bands can harness.

Cameron Blake's distinctive voice and lyrics set his songwriting apart from the pack

If you haven’t read Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time series, you probably shouldn’t start unless you have a lot of time to kill. The series is currently 13 books long, with a fourteenth (and final, thankfully) coming; worse than that, the books range from 600-1000 pages each. The word “timesink” doesn’t do the phenomenon enough justice.

But since I read with music going, it’s given me plenty of time to listen to music. And as enveloping as the tale of three taveren has been, it’s been even better with Cameron Blake‘s musical accompaniment.

Blake’s two most recent albums show an unique songwriter who has the ability to be a staying power in folk music for years to come, based on his lyrical skill and vocals.

Blake’s guitar and piano skills are formidable, but that’s not what makes him so great. His voice is a finely-tuned instrument recalling the best elements of John Darnielle, Colin Meloy and indie hero Ben Gibbard without losing its distinctiveness.

His latest studio album Hide and Go Seek is a low-key but focused affair that features his voice over spare songwriting. Gospel arrangements permeate his best works, as in the standard “I’ll Fly Away” and the excellent, jaunty original “Down to the River.” Both are anchored by piano: the former church-inspired, and the latter almost in an almost honky-tonk style that fits his smooth vocals perfectly.

His lyrics are also a high point, as he shows in “Moonshiner,” the title track and opening track “Every Hundred Miles.” The spacious arrangements give his lyrics room to breathe, and when floated by his excellent vocals, the songs become much more than the sum of their parts.

In that way, Blake functions like a mellower, more user-friendly version of The Mountain Goats; Blake takes on less heady themes in a much more palatable voice, but he gives the same attention to each word that Darnielle does. He tells stories with the same panache and flair, making the quoting of lines relatively unhelpful in showing the reasons why his lyrics are great.

The inflections that Blake employs on his higher vocal register recall those of Gibbard, although Blake’s range is much lower. The pleasing way that Meloy chops some of his vowels finds an analogue in Blake occasionally, as well.

Hide and Go Seek is the rare album that has layers to reward the serious listener. It’s entirely possible to listen and hear some lithe folky pop, but there is so much more here to get, lyrically and musically.

Blake develops another dimension of his sound in Cameron Blake with Strings: Live. Having already used tasteful string arrangements on his latest collection, this is not so much an exploration as an expansion of his sound. It also serves to introduce listeners to work from his previous album En Route. From that disc, “The Love Song Never Died” is the highlight of this album, as the complex song structure lends itself beautifully to the emotionally powerful crescendo that the strings afford it.

The depressing “Hudson Line” is made all the more poignant by the inclusion of strings, as well. Even more impressive than the arrangements is the success with which the recording is pulled off. Rarely do the strings get whiny, and Blake’s voice is steady as a rock. The only misstep is the 8-minute string piece “Hymn,” which is marked as “by Geoff Knorr.” It’s about 5 minutes too long and bears absolutely no connection to the rest of the work. Other than that, the album is a triumph.

Both albums show off Blake’s lyrical power and ease in his own skin. With his distinctive voice, memorable songwriting and that easy showman’s touch, Blake could go very far. I would love to see him support Josh Ritter or another songwriter of that caliber sometime soon. Highly recommended.