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
Sometimes when a person realizes their immense talent, they whip around like an untethered garden hose on full blast. Eliot Bronson’s self-titled record (but third solo release) sees the singer/songwriter jumping through different iterations of acoustic-based music, making good music in all of them. Some tracks have a Josh Ritter-esque brightness (“New Pain,” which could be a The Beast In Its Tracks b-side); others appeal to lovers Mojave 3-style slowcore alt-country (“You Wouldn’t Want Me If You Had Me,” “Time Ain’t Nothin”); and the bulk of the tracks work in a folk-inspired, dreamy alt-pop vein similar to Peter Bradley Adams’ work (closer “Baltimore” points this out most poignantly).
The highlight, though, is the song where Bronson pulls all those influences together into his own mix: “Comin’ For Ya North Georgia Blues” ties a perky guitar line with a hummable alt-pop chorus and a sense of gravitas. It’s a great song, and it points to current and future greatness. Eliot Bronson is a varied album that shows off how immensely interesting Bronson’s work can be, and how incredibly tight and polished it already is.
Greylag‘s self-titled album comes from the Led Zeppelin school of rock, which is predicated on the idea that folk and rock aren’t that far apart. Led Zep picked up on their native English and Scottish folk sounds, and Greylag picks up on modern folk-pop songwriting conventions to ground their rock epics. The gentle acoustic guitar, soaring vocals, spacious arrangement and lyrics at the onset of “Burn On” make Fleet Foxes’ Helplessness Blues the most easy RIYL; the lonesome acoustic closer “Walk the Night” could also be any number of young, yearning folk singer/songwriters. “Arms Unknown” starts out with what sounds like a mandolin–whether it is or not, that’s the vibe they’re putting off.
But they also know how to rock. They’re not big into the “massive riffs pounded liberally” model of rock; they prefer the Rolling Stones’ style of ongoing, developing songs that have mood as a goal. “Mama” is a beautiful example of this, as it rocks without getting into stone-crushing distortion. The brooding “Kicking” has grumbling, biting guitars throughout. If the Kings of Leon hadn’t gone full arena rock after their Southern rock days, they may have hit on this midpoint between melodic engagement, rough-and-tumble production, and rock swagger. The culmination of their style is opening single “Another,” which has a rolling, pastoral acoustic base before expanding with tom-heavy percussion and keening, eerie “whoa-ohs.” It doesn’t rock as hard as the ominous, more stereotypically rock-ish “Yours to Shake,” but it’s a great indicator of what Greylag is trying to do here. If you regret that rock got heavier and heavier instead of splitting that difference between acoustic and electric, Greylag should cheer you up.
I’m showing up late to The Naked and the Famous’ album Passive Me Aggressive You because I agreed with the naysayers who thought “Young Blood” sounded like second-rate Passion Pit. But since I ran across the much more subtle and interesting “Girls Like You” and “Punching In,” I’ve been hooked on the band’s sound. I even like “Young Blood” more, because I know that it’s backed up with nuance, as opposed to cash-in, rip-off glee. Official apology complete.
Bands that can pull off glee and nuance with equal passion are of deep interest to me, which is why TNATF and I Used to Be a Sparrow both have been piquing my interest recently. The duo named I Used to Be a Sparrow hails from Sweden, composed of IC fave Andrea Caccese (Songs for the Sleepwalkers) and Dick Pettersson. Caccese brings thoughtful post-rock/dream-pop influences from his previous work to their debut Luke, while Pettersson contributes an upbeat indie-rock aesthetic reminiscent of Frightened Rabbit. The result is an optimistic, energetic, beautiful album with plenty of room to grow.
The album has a lot of musical touchpoints: the churning post-rock of Sigur Ros has some pull on the sound, while the heavily rhythmic beauty of their lead singer Jonsi’s work figures in (“Lovers on the Moon”). The optimistic mysticism of ’80s U2 (optimysticism?) influences some of the guitar work (“Cambodia,” especially), while the passionate charge of Scott Hutchison’s Frightened Rabbit is unavoidable to mention (“Cambodia,” again). Their more anthemic turns call up Kings of Leon and U2 again.
So is this a derivative mess? No, not at all. The touchstones never devolve into aping another’s sound, because the dream-pop, post-rock and indie-rock ideas are all pulling on each other at the same time. The best example of this is the title track: “Luke” starts off with a wall of squalling guitars and feedback before fading the noise into a dreamy, patterned electronic rhythm and four-part vocal chorus. The background drops out, leaving just the transcendent vocals. It’s an odd tune, but an endearing one, because the vocals are just so good. The song ends, seguing into “Give It Up,” which is an acoustic track of sorts.
The best of the tunes here are idiosyncratic like “Luke.” “Smoke” starts off with a chiming mellophone, introduces some interesting rhythmic patterns, and then augments the construction with a stomping, four-on-the-floor drumbeat. “Lovers on the Moon” builds from an acoustic guitar and distant “ooo” into a unique tune complete with shakers, toms, and screaming guitar. “Give It Up” builds an acoustic track out into a darker mood, again with fitting drumming and evocative guitar.
When I Used to Be a Sparrow pushes the “anthemic” button too often, though, things start to get less easily discernable from each other. “Copenhagen” and “Life is Good” sound a lot like each other; “Hawaii” is not that far off. The songs aren’t bad, but they’re repetitive. (Of the three, “Life is Good” sounds like the original, and the other two the copies.) “Moby Dick,” one of the more memorable vocal melodies on the album, owes a debt to the Passion Pit/The Naked and the Famous school. (Which, I suppose, is a good or bad thing, depending.)
Caccese is starting a habit of doing one-off projects, but I hope this is one that he sticks with. The things that he and Pettersson bring to the table make for a unique blend of nuance, passion and enthusiasm. With some more songwriting under their collective belt, I Used to Be a Sparrow could be something really great. Tunes like “Luke” and “Lovers on the Moon” already prove that their vision is an interesting and unique one. Here’s to hoping they refine and mature it, because I would love to hear more of this.
Matt Carney and I are doing a collaborative best-of list for OKSee, the blog that we each ran for half the year. It’s going to be awesome, and I’ll post a link when it happens.
Horse Thief‘s Grow Deep, Grow Wild appeared in our conversation, and Matt exhorted me to check it out. Matt shares my love of LCD Soundsystem and has rocked out to Colourmusic’s “Yes!” in a moving vehicle with me, so I trust his judgment. His judgment was in fine form when he recommended this album to me.
Grow Deep, Grow Wild is one of that rare class of albums that appropriates a specific feel as opposed to a specific genre. I suppose it’s vaguely indie-rock/alt-countryish, but what it really sounds like is the beginning of a road trip across the Midwest. The music is wide-open and spacious, and the energy bubbles just below the surface.
Opener “Colors” sets the mood with Springsteen-esque drums, foundational organ, distant background vocals, and rattling guitars in the chorus. The whole arrangement is held together by an affected, unusual vocal tone. The song comes together brilliantly, setting the rest of the album on a course that it rarely deviates from. Think or the Walkmen if they toned down the brittle guitar distortion, or Kings of Leon if the sheen of Only By the Night had a lot more country in it. I know I just repped a band with maximum cred and no cred back-to-back, but it is what it is.
The complete control of a very specific mood is the album’s strength and weakness. The call-and-response vocal delivery of “Warrior (Oklahoma)” is one of the few tracks that sticks out in the album, because the rest of the tunes feel like movements of one greater suite. The relatively small number of instruments used contributes to this sameness; I would love to see Horse Thief experiment with other sounds more extensively in the future. The one extremely memorable break from this is “Down By The River,” which busts out Walkmen-like horns to great effect. But to Horse Thief’s credit, there are no downside tracks: this is a totally enveloping atmosphere.
I’ve mentioned the Walkmen several times, and I’m going to do it again: if you’re down with Lisbon, you really should check Grow Deep, Grow Wild out. Horse Thief’s wide-open plains intensity is the Oklahoman answer to the aforementioned’s Brooklynite yowl. The album drops today, so if you’re in Oklahoma, head out to ACM@UCO and hear it, as well as the all-star supporting line-up of The Non, Deerpeople and Feathered Rabbit (all of whom are dear to my heart).
J. Quinn Erwin is the first Horizon artist to drop the tag, and he’s done so with impressive speed. It was just July that I was wondering where Afterlife Parade would go from its impressive but scattered debut, and three months later he’s clarified his position — with an exclamation point.
Erwin has gone the anthemic route over the subtle track on Rebirth, and it’s a bit of a revelation. There are strong suggestions of U2, Kings of Leon and Springsteen here, but Erwin makes the markers point to his tunes instead of away to those other guys’ works by meshing the easily categorizable elements with unusual, complex arrangements. That is exactly how you play those cards. High five.
The title track appropriates new-millennium U2 excellently, underlying the “woah-ohs” and terse melodic action with a rumbling energy that connects it to the other seven tunes here. “Black Woods, White Beach” is where Erwin really gets going, however. He deftly meshes raw emotional power via the vocal tone and melody with triumphant, Funeral-era Arcade Fire crescendos in a way that was missing from Death.
Erwin shows shades of his exuberant songwriting ethos throughout, whether in the giddy “Sequoia,” the clever minor/major pull of “Devil’s Dirt” and the fitting closer “Maypole.” These songs are bursting with interesting things to talk about, but that would strip the joy of discovery from you. Yes, it is that good.
Rebirth truly lives up to its title. Afterlife Parade now has a recognizable sound and the makings of a distinct songwriting vision that’s more than a gimmick. There are no clunkers on Rebirth; furthermore, there are no easy picks for “best tune.” They all have their own treasures. I expect big, big things from Afterlife Parade. I also expect you to go check out this album.
Stephen Carradini and Lisa Whealy write reviews of instrumental, folk, and singer/songwriter music. We write about those trying to make the next step in their careers and established artists.