Oakland blessed us with Blisses B, a quartet whose latest LP graces listeners with a bright disposition and diverse sounds that make it pleasantly hard to categorize. Sea Level Astronomy brilliantly and organically blends folk, rock and psychedelia into a record oozing Vitamin D. The band’s third full-length album evokes an animated, underdog tone through upbeat catchiness and folky, wholesome vocals. Its mentality is similar to Weezer’s “Beverly Hills,” but not as loud and with a bit more soul.
“Montevideo” starts us off with an energizing, rallying set of vocals and bass line that pretty much guarantees we’ll have a good time through the rest of the tracks. It resembles Kings of Leon’s “Taper Jean Girl” through its pop-art vocals and best-put-on-your-dancing-shoes rhythm.
Tunes like “Weapons Grade” and “Side Hug” are predominantly sun-kissed tracks. “Weapons Grade” chills things out with a clear, beachy grooviness. It reminds us that being the underdog can be fun, laidback, and bringing not a whole lot of in-your-face expectations. “Side Hug” shares some of those low-maintenance qualities, but with a little more oomph. Lacing enough reggae to weave together an additional layer of optimism, this tune is a Corona in song form. It feels, quite literally, like receiving a side hug — non threatening, friendly, always down for one.
“Figurative Light” shifts down a gear in vivid cheeriness and turns up seriously heartfelt guitar sentiment that builds to a fervid solo at 2:35. The song captures a raw, honest sense of eagerness that fits perfectly into the puzzle of power in perspective. It balances the heavy positive charge the album transmits by electrifying us with something darker in hue, more grounding. Bloc Party-esque, “Figurative Light” hones that happy-sad beauty found in a sunrise or sunset.
Sea Level Astronomy has an undeniably warm sepia tint. Blisses B brings the California sunshine with its feel-good, weightless vibe and none of the damaging rays. The best part: Blisses B’s ability to prove it’s cool to not be cool, bigger to not be big and inexplicably genius to not be mainstream genius. —Rachel Haney
Ryan O’Reilly’s gorgeously-shot video for “Northern Lights” plays out like a wintry Moonrise Kingdom. The high-drama, piano-led singer/songwriter tune fits perfectly with the video.
Some bands know how to create gravitas out of the same old instruments. There’s nothing unique about the instrumentation in Lowland Hum’s “Odell,” but they wring heartbreakingly powerful indie-rock tunes out of it (a la a catchier Bowerbirds). The video is a perfect foil to the song, pulling the heavy and the light out of everyday experiences.
The swift fingerpicking of Caitlin Marie Bell’s “Mama” is filled out with a gentle alt-country arrangement that calls to mind Laura Stevenson’s immediately-engaging work. Bell’s evocative voice leads the way through the arrangement, resulting in one of the best new songs I’ve heard this year. I’m very much looking forward to more from Bell.
Laura and Greg’s pristine, bell-clear, minimalist songwriting is similar to The Weepies. The terrific video is a lovingly hand-drawn animation that will make you want to watch it over and over.
1. “Make Me Wanna Die” – White Reaper. If Oasis had been playing at 40 bpms faster and way thrashier, you’d end up with this catchy, snarling, fun track.
2. “Hard 2 Wait” – Iji. My first thought when I get a pseudo-disco tune is not, “Oh yeah, that’s my jam.” But somehow, Iji has won me over with this charming retro nugget. It helps that the disco is fused to a San Fran indie-pop sort of sensibility.
3. “Punk Band” – Conrad. Actually a synth-pop band with some chillwave inflections and post-punk rumbling bass singing about a punk band. Joins “The Best Ever Death Metal Band out of Denton” in the “odes to other genres” genre. It’s pretty great.
4. “Oh Josephine” – Vienna Ditto. Pulling back from their brittle ways, but not their noir drama ones, Ditto delivers a smooth, sultry indie-rock cut with a hint of trip-hop glamour to it.
5. “Bibleblack (demo)” – Autumn Owls. That sort of ominous, artsy, glitchy rock that Radiohead burst into the public consciousness is on display here. AO is following up on their debut of dark, melodic indie-rock with a new album later this year (after their lead singer recovers from–oh no!–a mugging).
6. “Asleep in the Pine” – Birds of Night. Do you remember that moment when Band of Horses was the biggest thing going? Birds of Night totally do.
7. “Aleph” – Battle Ave. The band’s raw, frantic rock has met atmosphere and jangle since we last heard it, resulting in less panic and more mumbly confidence (is that a paradox/oxymoron?). New York cool permeates this tune, even though Upstate New York is part of their story instead of the city.
8. “Singing Tower” – R. Ring. Two rock vets team up for a poignant, delicate acoustic lament. Seems like if you can write a song somewhere, you can write a song in a lot of places.
9. “Kote’w Te Ye” – Beken. Sometimes a song comes along that’s so fresh, warm, and bright that it just lifts the clouds of whatever’s going on. The raspy, gravitas-laden voice of Haitian Beken, who sings in Kreyol, is accompanied by an easygoing group of male singers, tom-heavy percussion, and a lively acoustic guitar.
“Grainy” – Cotton Claw. You know that scene in action movies where the spy is in a club, and then he spots his guy, and then a noir-ish chase scene through a dark, glamourously-lit urban landscape erupts without the music changing all that much? Plug and play.
“Rooftops” – Sick of Sarah. Is it a dis to say someone sounds like Paramore these days? If not, the confident vocals and tight dance-rock beats makes this tune sound like an enthusiastic Paramore club remix. If yes, this sounds nothing like that at all.
“Broken Angels” – Jade the Moon. Other than the wub in the bass, this is a vocals-heavy, female-fronted mid-tempo club banger from the ’90s. (That’s totally great with me.)
“Raincoats” – Maribou State. Got me wondering: what’s the politically correct term for Tribal House these days?
“Enchanteresse” – Scattered Clouds. Dissonant, disorienting flashes of guitar lightning crash on an ominous plateau of baritone speak/sing vocals and plodding bass. For fans of apocalyptic post-rock.
“State of Low” – Cajsa Siik. I know this sort of delicate, feminine indie-electro-pop existed before I heard Frou Frou on the Garden State soundtrack, but I can’t escape thinking about Imogen Heap’s vocals whenever something this light (yet dark, always dusk where they are) appears.
“Lost” – Zohara. An unusual fusion of pop chanteuse vocals, dissonant orchestration, and pleasant piano produces an enigmatic, interesting track.
“Forest Fires” – Axel Flóvent. If you’re the sort of person who longs for winter as soon as it gets warm, this acoustic- and piano-laden track will give you all the snowy-cabin-folk chills you need to get you through the hard months.
“True Colors” – Johanna Warren. Surprisingly technical guitar playing gets matched with calming vocals and very serious arrangements of piano and flute. This results in a tune that is both calming and unsettling.
“Without A Care” – Turn to Crime. The insistent arpeggiator, the squawking guitar, pushing drums, and repetitive nature of the song make this perfect road rock’n’roll. Also the topical matter, now that you mention it.
“Killer Flamingo Báy” – Flamingo Bay. Manages to be raw and snarling while still also conveying droll boredom with the subject matter. In essence, the most rock’n’roll stance you could take, according to the Vines and Cage the Elephant.
“Loose People” – Sans Parents. This feels like a garage rock song jammed together with a melancholy Beach Boys track, but as if those two things have been waiting to be put together forever.
“Get It Out” – Two Sheds. Lumbering, towering, yet oddly good-natured rock that seems to be trying to engulf its lead singer entirely.
“Struck Matches” – Bop English. It says “English” on the tin, but this cross between roots-rock and Styx is about as American as classic rock stylings can get.
“The Devil Got to Go” – The Through & Through Gospel Review. If Of Montreal ever got conscripted for a prison chain gang work crew…
“All the Time” – Nai Harvest. You look like you need some good, straight-ahead power-pop in your life.
“City Livin’” – Round Eye. Frantic, zinging, careening punk from China. What’s not interesting about that?
“One More Life” – Shy For Shore. I suppose if you hate electro-pop, it’s this sort of thing that you rail against. But I don’t know what’s wrong with high drama, big synths, and yearning vocals–if you’re looking for subtlety, just turn away. If you’re looking for that big moment: feast on, friends.
“Holy Fire (Radio Edit)” – Many Things. Due to its hypnotic ostinato piano line, U2-level bombastic production, and demands to “throw up your hands now,” this thumping-beat pop anthem is contractually obligated to be played only in stadiums and at least 10 feet above the heads of the floor audience.
“Build a Sun” – Wartime Blues. This outfit is trying to cram gleeful abandon into a tastefully restrained orchestral folk-pop band. The results are like Josh Ritter with old-school Arcade Fire creeping out from around the edges.
Brett Borovic’s The Fearless and the Faint highlights the great talent of Brett Borovic in a myriad of ways. Each song has a unique flavor to it via the many different instrument pairings throughout the album; whether it’s harmonica, violin, guitar, bass, or drums, you can find them all and more on this album. (It is simply amazing that the only instrument not performed by Brett Borovic himself is Nathan Tulenson’s violin.) Borovic’s voice is also a very powerful instrument. His often-soulful voice adds a certain sensuality to his music, especially when paired with instruments like the piano and electric guitar (“Day Becomes Night”).
Many instruments come together to make the very unique sound, self-described as “Existential Western Indie Rock.” Picture this: the song begins with a piercing violin intro, then introduces a gentle drum beat after a couple measures, followed by a spaghetti western guitar riff. I just described opener “A Truth I Never Thought I’d Find.” Overall, the album effortlessly combines classical elements, such as the violin and piano, with a modernized spaghetti western sound achieved mostly through the bass and guitar.
Although the album is often a fiery affair, a highlight off the album is actually one of the softer songs, “All I Thought I Wanted.” Borovic softens his powerful voice a bit to fit with the sweet lyrics and gentle strumming of the guitar that simply demands that you sway. The last song “So Blue” is also notably softer and more melodic in its instrumentation.
The dark and fiery moments of The Fearless and the Faint come together with its playful Spaghetti Western influences and occasional softer moments to make a truly unique sound. The Fearless and the Faint is out now! -Krisann Janowitz
I don’t think I’ll ever tire of cheery power-pop with crunchy guitars, effervescent melodies, and heartfelt angst. Sam Vicari‘s Giving Up is a testament to the undying power of the charming genre, combining Death Cab for Cutie-esque vocals with the clanging guitars and big drums of an old-fashioned guitar-rock trio. Of the ten songs on the record, only two make it above 2:30 and break 3:10. (Holding to that 2:20 pop song form hearkens back even earlier in pop’s history.) I don’t think there are any instruments on the record except guitar, bass, drums, and vox–sometimes simple purity is the best.
But there’s nothing retro or nostalgic about Giving Up; instead, Vicari delivers fresh, modern pop nuggets like “All and Everyday,” “Looking for a Warm Heart,” and “October” in rapid succession. If you’re into summery, cheery guitar-pop, Sam Vicari’s Giving Up will thoroughly satisfy you. Crank the windows down and the volume up.
A breathy saxophone is one of the first and last sounds you hear on Unreal, James Irwin‘s ’80s-inspired chill-out album. Irwin is a laid-back cat: rubbery bass, feathery woodwinds and flutes, reverb-heavy guitars, Irwin’s relaxed vocals and easygoing tempos form the predominant framework for tunes that unfold at their own pace. The resulting amalgam sounds like if Matthew Squires and the Learning Disorders somehow time traveled into 1986 Miami.
Tunes like the title track, “Face Value,” and “Sahra” aren’t tropical or Caribbean in any large sense; instead, they capture the languid haze that was layered over seemingly all ’80s cop dramas. Tension here isn’t ominous; it’s simply a push and pull of instruments. Snappy high hat pushes the tempo while pad synths hold it back in “Face Value.” The warm synths that open “Sahra” give an almost chillwave vibe before gentle sleigh bells and plodding guitar flip the script entirely: “Sahra” is actually a slow ballad.
The title track reminds me of M83’s “Midnight City” in its use of saxophone and its deep commitment to a particular style of sound, but the tunes couldn’t be more different and still be evoking the same era. (“Michigan Miami” is the one that actually appropriates a driving ’80s electro pop sound.) The synths that Irwin uses aren’t the sharp, whiny synths common to modern EDM or the twinkly ones common to stereotypical ’80s pop. The pad synths are diffused whispers that call up memories without being the lead element (most of the time). Given those synths as a base, the title track relies on an almost doo-wop bass line to bring a bit of motion to the straight-up-and-down drumming and gauzy backdrop. This causes the final product to come off seeming like a recently-unearthed mid-’80s predecessor of The Antlers’ work.
But Irwin isn’t doing a nostalgia reconstruction here: “Blood Going Back in Time” and “Siberia China” draw on modern indie-pop elements. The delicate fingerpicking, separated drumming and distant synths of “Siberia China” call Clem Snide to mind (as well as the aforementioned Squires). Standout “Blood Going Back in Time” fuses the ’80s sentiments to distinctly modern, quirky guitar production to really come into his own sound. The vocals, arrangement, and cryptic lyrics (including several prominent references to George Henry Wallace) make it a tune worth listening to multiple times.
Nostalgia is a dangerous game sometimes, because it can seem like there’s no creativity there. James Irwin’s Unreal is more than just a time-travelogue to a particular sound. It’s a re-envisioning of a certain mood and sonic space with modern developments included. If you’re into the ’80s, well and good–you’ll be all over this. However, if you’re into adventurous, thoughtful chill electro or indie-pop, you’ll be just an enamored with the album.
Yeesh‘s No Problem is the fantastic result of 40 years of rock experimentation. If you scour through the impressive sonic melange of tracks like “Slip,” “Linda Lee,” and “Genesis Pt. 1,” you’ll find traces of (deep breath) Black Flag, the Minutemen, various grunge howlers, Blur, Modest Mouse, The Strokes, The Vaccines, The Pixies, Hot Water Music, The Menzingers, countless unnamed punk bands, and post-rock bands that emphasize the rock. What’s not included might be easier to list than what is. (No reggae or folk, for example.)
This level of sonic re-appropriation and pastiche makes it difficult to review; each song is its own distinct head trip. “Friends/Shadows” is the most frantic Menzingers song never recorded, with a math-rock breakdown for the heck of it. “Different Light” is a mid-tempo singalong made unusual by atypical reverb settings on the guitar; the propulsive “Watch Yr Step” lives on the boundary of punk and post-hardcore. “Zakk Radburn Teenage Detective” starts out with chiming guitars reminiscent of early ’00s indie-pop, then layers the most brutal guitar noise of the entire album on top of it. They never resolve the tension there, instead using it to power some start/stop acrobatics.
Listening to all of No Problem is a mind-bending experience. Yeesh doesn’t see any contradiction in having soaring guitar lines compete with gnarly low-end rhythm guitar (closer “Shock” most prominently, but it’s everywhere); they don’t see any problem in mixing poppy melodies, brute force guitars, polyrhythmic rhythm section, and artistic guitar effects. This kitchen sink approach to songwriting results in something truly inventive and creative: a set of ten songs that kept me guessing the entire time. If you think that complex arrangements can and should be set in the service of pummeling eardrums, No Problem may be high on your year-end list.
Here’s a batch of MP3s that I have been long remiss in posting. Also, happy Good Friday to you.
On the Fly
1. “A Warning of Sorts” – CHIRPING. Are we ever done with slick, well-produced, cheery indie-rock from Swedes? No, never. Put on your dancing shoes.
2. “Number One” – The Sideshow Tragedy. Did The Black Keys ever sound sinister? The Sideshow Tragedy has honed the blues-rock guitar/drums duo to a fine point here, packing in energy, melodies, dynamics, and (yes) even some sinister vocal vibes. Whoever can’t get behind a good tambourine needs to get this tune in front of them.
3. “Retro Bastard (KKBB Remix)” – Blood Sport. Kasey Keller Big Band turns out a remix of a song I’ve never heard, resulting in a complex pastiche of zooming digital sounds, heavy bass lines, complex drumming, and hollered vocals. Somehow, it turns into a herky-jerky dance tune, the sort of thing that mid-to-late ’00s dance-rock bands would have jonesed after. Intricate yet danceable, Artsy yet poppy? Turn that up.
4. “Sovereign Gore” – Casual Threats. Jamming post-hardcore’s dissonant aggression, post-punk’s wiry experimentation, and Interpol-esque dour melodies into one track is a tall order, but Casual Threats pull it off with confident aplomb.
5. “Unknown” – Lylit. If you have a way with a “whoa-oh,” you’re going to do well in today’s pop scene. Having an infectious groove that rides the line between dramatic and decidedly happy helps too.
6. “Lost is Found” – Perdido Key. In an age of no-nuance EDM, it’s refreshing to hear a club-ready tune with some atmosphere and restraint. It’s no surprise that it hearkens back to the ’90s–but not too much–to get that feel.
7. “Caves” – Sea Bed. Bouncy, rubbery keys give this dance tune a cool underwater feel, in addition to the boots’n’cats techno beat. (What up ’90s! Two in a row!) The vocal melody is infectious as well. This is way cool.
8. “He’s Heating Up” – Homeshake. So, this comes from an album that’s celebrating ’90s NBA basketball, which is a fantastic idea. Homeshake’s homage sounds like some unique alternate-universe version of Prince: feathery falsetto, vaguely funky mood, and affected sense of drama.
9. “Time For a New School of Alchemy” – ticktock. Glitchy electro had an idiosyncratic sort of beauty to it. This track harnesses bleeps, burbles, and chopped up sounds in the service of traditionally beautiful work that falls somewhere between ’80s synth-pop and modern bedroom chillwave.
10. “Mother of Maladies” – Marrow. I don’t know what it is about keyboards that can ground a funky song so well, but the wurlitzer gives this churning, whirling indie-rock piece a bit of solidity.
11. “Great Divide” – Humming House. Having great “whoa-ohs” helps in folk-pop too, as Humming House knows. Vocals reminiscent of The Avetts’ power this energetic, enthusiastic gem.
12. “When I Rise” – Diamondwolf. Percussion is real important in alt-country, and the stomp-clap drumming makes the mood here. The zinging pedal steel and heavy acoustic strum help too, making this into a powerful stomper of a tune.
13. “Ghost Town (Acoustic)” – Justin Klump. Klump’s voice has some of the trembling passion of Needtobreathe’s Bear Rinehart, but it’s set in a poignant, sentimental acoustic pop arrangement featuring cello and gentle banjo.
14. “Strong” – The Paper Shades. In the midst of this hurried and harried world, we need gentle singer/songwriter duos to tell us to “slow it down.” Unspool your stresses and let the gorgeous waves break kindly over you. Here’s to those who are still carrying the torch of calm.
Stephen Carradini and friends write reviews of bands that are trying to make the next step in their careers.