Learning how to write in a genre can be a lifelong exploration, even for the most talented of musicians: Josh Ritter has made a whole career exploring the nooks and crannies of modern folk. The Mountain Goats spent a whole decade mastering the lo-fi recording before spending another 15 years doing indie-pop in tons of different styles. As a result of the difficulty and time required to be an expert in one genre, skepticism is warranted when an artist leaves their home genre for another.
This is an even more risky proposition when the target isn’t one new genre, but a multi-genre, broadly “pop” album. Yet despite these many cards stacked against Alex Dezen‘s second solo outing II, the former Damnwells frontman has created a fascinating, incredibly enjoyable album that dabbles in half-a-dozen pop genres. It’s proof of Dezen’s songwriting prowess that he’s not just great in one genre: he’s great in a bunch of them.
Dezen doesn’t try to hide that’s he indulging in any flight of fancy that comes his way: The album opens with “When You Give Up,” a Miami Vice-esque noir new wave tune. Dezen’s lithe voice shines here; not only could he sing the phone book and make it sound great, he could sing it in a wide variety of genres, as well. His knack for catchy melodies is on display everywhere, from the vocal melodies to acoustic guitar riffs to blocky synth blasts. “Holding on to You (Holding on to Me)” has more ’80s rock vibes–this time more Heart than Blondie (“Barracuda,” in particular). As ever, the chorus hook is polished till it glows–you’ll be mumbling “holdingontoyou / holdingontoME” for a long while afterwards.
From there on, Dezen goes in full-on world tour mode. “Randolph Tonight” is CCR-esque swamp rock; “I Am a Racist” is a straight-up doo-wop tune; “New York to Paradise” is a lost Billy Joel piano ballad; “Fuck or Fight” is an Eagles-style country-rock rambler. None of these songs feel insincere or mishandled; Dezen waltzes his way through each of them with a deft hand. It’s even more to his credit that he played almost every instrument on this album. It’s one thing to write a melody in a different genre, and it’s another thing entirely to have the chops on multiple instruments to pull off a whole arrangement in another genre.
My favorite tunes here are ones that pair excellent arrangements with incisive, carefully wrought lyrics. The REM jangle of “I Had a Band” relates anecdotes from a coming-of-age tale with the emotionally charged punch line “I never had much of a father / but I had a band / yeah, I had a band.” Anyone who’s been in a band will relate to the loving, wry tone that runs through the lyrics, whether or not your relationship with your father was great. IC had the distinct honor of premiering the Graceland-inspired “Everything’s Great (Everything’s Terrible),” which has a thoughtful set of lyrics about people in the contemporary moment just trying to make it through. The acoustic closer “The Boys of Bummer” is a lovely song about people who write sad songs by a person who writes sad songs. The dignity with which the characters meander through the tune makes me think of The Hold Steady.
Because of the herculean effort Dezen expends on every track, the album is only 9 songs. Yet in those nine songs he creates his own personal version of the radio, putting his imprint on pop music. It’s a rare album that manages to pull off all that Dezen does here: this is a fully-realized album on “extra difficulty” mode. If you like pop music in any way, shape, or form, you need to hear this album. Highly recommended.
Reinvention can be challenging: Danny Elfman’s groundbreaking band Oingo Boingo went through a variety of changes, while Berlin changed the record industry’s perception of the band when Terri Nunn re-joined the outfit. Rather than a flashback, Oklahoma City’s former Starlight Mintsfrontman Allan Vest and producer Barb Vest are having no issues creating magic withan incredible blend of vibes that includes touches from the best of the 1980s new wave experimental revolution. DoubleVee is set to release its debut album, The Moonlit Fables of Jack the Rider, on February 10 via CEN/RED Distribution, a division of Sony Music. Not a bad way to start.
Jack the Rider was recorded and produced at their home studio in Norman, Oklahoma, with some mixing and mastering from Matt Pence at The Echo Lab and additional mixing and mastering from Wes Sharon at 115 Recording. The results are an incredibly cool, distinct concept album. The album follows the story of Jack, a traveler who descends from remnants of the Twilight Zone. The ten songs are a trippy wander, and it is easy to see how the former Starlight Mints work has been exposed to Iggy Pop and David Bowie. “‘Jack the Rider” integrates the vocal gifts of both Vests into a solid, subtle instrumentation that highlights the story. The tune transitions into “What You Deserve,” with background strings and whistles suggesting a stroll down a twisted version of Sesame Street.
“Frucus Minus (The Flycatcher)” is theatrical, the instrumentation a hip go-go grind. Somehow the music overwhelms the stench of the tale, like flowers popping out through manure in a garden. Allen’s beginnings as an adopted child seem to sing through the album: lost but found, alone but belonging–a DNA search around the time of this record found his birth father to be a music store owner in Houston area during the 1960s. “Dangerous World” delivers that feeling with Ziggy Stardust alienation. It also verifies the fact that we are who we are meant to become when the rubber meets the road. The piano-driven “Motorcade Serenade” is perfect; a march into a fuller instrumentation never feels inauthentic.
Ethereal vocals from Barb Vest drift into “Jose’s Apparition,” feeling an echo from Allen. Strings become a force in the story, a complete paradox to the feel of the song. One might think Jose is a tequila reference, especially if listeners have experienced the wrath of the morning after. The introduction of “Bumper Car Parade” definitely is hallucinatory. This is concept art, music, and theatrics worth the attention of Tim Burton. Hitting the retro stroll of “Quiz Show,” the perky feel is a TARDIS of sorts, collecting tidbits of musical history along the way. The modern mashup is impeccable.
Downtempo for the first time in Jack’s journey, “Wait In Blues” is real love. Heading out of the album, listeners are invited to be witnesses to the transformation that time and the journey made possible over another summer. Back to Oklahoma, Moonlit Fables of Jack the Rider comes full circle with “Nocturnal Boy.” Bright and uptempo, often the most demanding challenges become the most rewarding paradoxes in life. Concept albums can be memorable for listeners and thrive for generations. The debut effort from doubleVee has the potential to be one of those special albums.–Lisa Whealy
Nichoals Roberts’ Springbok Sessions video for “River to a Flood” sets him in nature, hanging out in the grounds behind the Mennello Museum of American Art in Orlando. It’s sunset, and there’s a hazy background that could be a lake, a river, or some other wide expanse. The serene conditions are a perfect match for Roberts’ delicate, almost crystalline tune; his whisper-folk voice meshes seamlessly over a gently strummed acoustic guitar. There are traces of William Fitzsimmons’ hushed intensity here, as well as Sufjan Stevens’ Michigan-era elegies. The results are magnificent; it’s a beautiful rendition of an excellent song.
1. “Me to Bleed” – Madeleine Dopico. Dopico’s powerful voice and large range are on full display here, as she just powerhouses her way through a churning, pounding indie rock tune. It sounds like an unhinged Lake Street Dive working a minor key. Wow.
2. “Pin on a Map” – Fiesta Morose. The band name is perfect here, as the high-drama dourness of Leonard Cohen or Nick Cave meets the full-band enthusiasm and stylistic precision of early Arcade Fire in a beautiful collision.
3. “Property” – Jillian Steele. Sometimes a pop song jumps out of the pack and impresses itself upon my brain. This female-empowerment anthem is a acoustic-pop jam that opens up into a big, memorable, Lilith-Fair-esque chorus.
4. “Orbit Berlin” – Evil Astronaut. This thrumming, brooding electro-pop tune has a big human heart via the vulnerable vocal performance and and expertly-employed vocal modulations, harmonies, and counterpoints. The big, heavenly-sounding synths at the end help that warm feeling along.
5. “This Mess Won’t Make Itself” – Dead Seem Old. Songs influenced by flamenco guitar are just always so jubilant and lively, even when not in a major key. This dance-inducing track includes rat-a-tat vocal rhythms, perky horns, and a great mood. Awesome.
6. “Captain’s Ship” – Sasha and the Bear. This swaying, undulating indie-pop track is woozy in the best way: there’s a sense of the unusual and unexpected hanging over this track, from the rhythms to the unique vocal tone to the mix of delicate stringed instruments and big synths. It’s infectious.
7. “Live Like You (The Empty Vignette)” – Eli Otterholt. The lovely instrumental mood is a mix between the calm of Alexi Murdoch and the sweep of Gregory Alan Isaakov. The multi-generational lyrics spin a compelling tale of hope and love.
8. “Walk Towards the Fireworks” – Liam Paton. Ostensibly a solo piano composition, this excellent track combines gentle brushed percussion, lush strings, melodically interesting piano, and even horns to create a whirling, enveloping landscape.
9. “Rain” – Delafaye. A sleepy, reverb-laden acoustic piece that really evokes the mood of grey day. The vocal melodies in the chorus are particularly great.
10. “Sweetly” – The Show Ponies. There’s always room in my heart for a tender, unfussy love song. The warm acoustic guitar performance, earnest female vocal performance, and ear-catching vocal melodies put this tune on the top shelf.
Stephen Carradini and friends write reviews of instrumental music. We write about those trying to make the next step in their careers and established artists.