When I was in an art-rock band in high school, we managed to agree on only three cover songs in our four-year history: Coldplay’s “Parachutes,” Fall Out Boy’s “Dance Dance,” and “Hotel California.” (If you can figure out what those have in common, let me know.) My latest endeavor with the cover song was much more coherent, as I got 22 bands to contribute to a Postal Service covers album. I’m still incredibly thrilled with the final product, although I certainly do not want to run a similar project any time soon.
Folk-pop duo Jenny & Tyler, who were featured on Never Give Up, have put together their own covers album in For Freedom. As the title would suggest, the 7-song album is a project that benefits International Justice Mission‘s work to end slavery. Not only do you get their excellent arrangement skills, songs you love, and guest musicians (Sara Groves! JJ Heller! A virtual choir of hundreds of J&T fans!), you get to support justice in the world. What are you waiting for?
“We Will Become Silhouettes” is included here in remastered form, sounding even more gorgeous than before. It would easily be my favorite (and not just for sentimental value; the crescendo from beginning to end is heart-pounding) except for the absolutely stunning “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For.” Jenny & Tyler temper Bono’s original desperation with their warm, gentle arrangement skills, using oboe, clarinet, and cello to create an alternate vision of what that place we’re all looking for sounds like. If that wasn’t enough, they enlist the excellent Sara Groves and a choir of fans to guest vocal, creating a simply masterful take on the song. I could listen to this one all day.
They turn Smashing Pumpkins’ “Tonight, Tonight” from an angsty rager into a twee-pop tune, complete with glockenspiel. “The Sound of Silence” is suitably haunting, with their voices and clarinet (aside: I just love that they give the clarinet good press) giving a new tension to Simon & Garfunkel’s original. “The Scientist” includes a harpsichord/autoharp sound, but no piano; it’s an ambitious move that pays off.
Overall, Jenny & Tyler have set their unique and particular vision on these tracks, and that’s all that I ask from covers. The fact that the tunes are alternately heartbreaking and heart-pounding is a testament to the skill with which they can realize that vision. Highly recommended.
Every once in a blue moon, Independent Clauses covers modern rock. South Cry‘s album is literally called Blue Moon. I took that as a challenge.
If we’re going to count modern rock on its playing field, we need to be checking for anthemic riffs, soaring vocals, vaguely dark moods and guitar solos. By the 2:00 minute mark in opener “Paradox,” South Cry has delivered all of these things. They’ve even thrown in acoustic guitar for good measure. This band sounds more like Creed than Creed does (and, in this context, that’s a very good thing). And, although critically maligned, Creed sold a bajillion albums. This bodes very well for South Cry.
It helps that they’re actually good at all of the aforementioned parts. The vocalist has a powerful croon that stays locked in to the notes, even when casting off lines nonchalantly (“Lord of Sound”). And their riffs are pretty great too; I had my iPod on shuffle when “L.I.A.R.” came on, and I thought it was a Foo Fighters song at first. Other tunes call to mind Lifehouse and even Silversun Pickups (who, in turn, call to mind Smashing Pumpkins).
The members of South Cry are a bunch of guys from Brazil trying to break into the American scene, but you would never know from the sound. They sound like a melodic modern rock band through and through. If you’re still lovin’ that modern rock sound, you should check these guys out post-haste. Blue Moon is a great collection of modern rock songs that showcases vocal and guitar prowess.
Even listeners who obsess over their favorite bands do not spend as much time with the tunes as the artist who created them does. This uncomplicated fact should be reason enough for artists to routinely change sounds and for listeners to accept those changes. Sadly, this is often not the case. “I’ve just got a connection to that one album, y’know?” For that reason, I try to give a wide berth to bands that want to change it up.
I say that because Daniel G. Harmann‘s Risk is a change of sound. It’s not a dramatic change in sound (i.e. Plans –> Narrow Stairs), but it is a fundamental shift in the purpose of the tunes. While Harmann still makes grand, sweeping, morose tunes, he’s making them this time with the express intent of rocking while doing it. Note the fact that he’s brought along a band, cleverly titled “the Trouble Starts.”
While Harmann was no stranger to distorted guitars, pre-Risk, they weren’t the central mood marker in most tunes. Here, they are: Harmann’s voice, which previously drove the proceedings, takes an equal seat with the guitars in many songs. This is not a bad thing, but for a guy who absolutely loves The Books We Read Will Bury Us, it’s disorienting to hear a distorted version of Books’ “Solidarity” appear on Risk. I could write a whole post on the differences between the two versions, but that wouldn’t tell you much about the album as a whole.
On the other hand, it’s comforting that he did include some old tracks (the entirety of Our Arms EP appears), as it eases the transition some. If he had just dropped a whole album of tunes like “Estrella” on us oldtimers with no warning, there would have been a lot of weeping.
That’s because “Estrella,” in the vernacular of rock’n’roll, absolutelykills it. I’m talking charging guitars, pounding drums, rushing cymbals, Daniel G. Harmann yelling unintelligibly in the roar and epic strings to top it all off. It sounds like Explosions in the Sky. It is absolutely fantastic, and totally unexpected. It is far and away the highlight of the album, as it’s the one that you’ll be pressing repeat for.
There are other moments on the album of similar but not greater caliber. The playful riff of “Auckland to Auckland” is underscored by a complicated tom pattern. “The Horse and the Sistine Chapel” is a straightforward rock song, albeit with Harmann’s decidedly unstraightforward vocal tone. “Lions” even starts out with a guitar riff as opposed to a big sheet of distortion. In short, Daniel G. Harmann really wants to rock out. So he does.
Is it good? Yes. It’s definitely good. Harmann’s aforementioned vocals and unique melodies keep the proceedings from turning into a Silversun Pickups album (although “Lions,” with its male/female vocals, tries really hard to ape their sound), and the band is incredibly tight behind him. They manage to keep Harmann’s more ambient tendencies in check, which is good for his new rock sound. Things never get monotonous, as they well could have, had he just slapped distortion over his old songwriting ideas.
I like Risk. It’s a well-composed album of rock tunes with occasional forays into mellow romanticism. As I skew toward the calmer side of music most of the time, I prefer the fewer moments of mopey emotionalism (” Knob Creek Neat”) to the squalling stomp of “Brass Tacks,” which is the majority sound. Be not swayed, though: Risk has definitive charms (again: “Estrella” destroys it) that I would be slighting if I passed over the album. If you’re a fan of art-powered, moody rock like Silversun Pickups, Radiohead, Smashing Pumpkins, and things of that ilk, you will find many joys in Risk.
Daniel G. Harmann and the Trouble Starts’ Risk drops Tuesday. Get it here.
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.
Room Full of Strangers‘ sound owes a lot to Smashing Pumpkins. Singer Mick “Dagger” McIuan growls, roars and hollers like a slightly less nasal, young Billy Corgan. The guitarists (who go by pseudonyms, in true rock fashion) adhere to the subdued verse/megadistorted chorus/shrieking guitar solo formula of rock music that Corgan and co. thrived off for years. But that’s not all there is to their sound.
Whether directly channeling grunge (“Part of Me,” “FTLO”), stomping through ’80s arena-rock (“The Night Could Never End”), or blasting out rebel-minded punk rock (“American Dream”), these guys rock with attitude to spare. The band really lets it ride on “American Dream,” churning out a fist-pumping, holler-along anthem with a four-on-the floor drumbeat and charging attitude.
You don’t always have to innovate to be great. Room Full of Strangers don’t do anything that hasn’t been done before. But it’s exciting, fun and passionate; what more do you want in a rock band? Oh, you want political awareness and band members in ski masks? RFOS has those too. Get on it, suckers.
It is sad that when grunge pretty much died in 1994, the post-grunge movement chose Nirvana as the jumping-off point instead of Smashing Pumpkins. The musical output of Billy Corgan and Co. was much more progressive and provided more potential artistic avenues than that of Cobain, Grohl and Novoselic. Fans of Nirvana got dozens of soundalike bands to help them through their grief. Fans of Smashing Pumpkins got…more Smashing Pumpkins.
For those who wish there was more Corgan to go around, I present to you The Empty Mirror’s Abstracted Catholic Opus (they refuse to label it an EP). Fuse the early nineties sound of Pumpkins with some modern production values and a bit of indie-rock pompousness, and you’ve got Abstracted Catholic. If you’re a fan of Corgan, you are allowed to foam at the mouth a bit. If you’re decidedly anti-Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness, you may need to look away now.
These five songs are short, punchy and full of attitude. While bandleader Grant Valdes is cut from the same cloth as Corgan in terms of pretentiousness and guitar aesthetic, these songs are not mere Pumpkins rip-offs. There’s a modern indie aesthetic attached to these songs that’s hard to put a finger on until you listen to Pumpkins songs for contrast. The mood of Abstracted Catholic (which the one-sheet calls nightmericana, interestingly) is highly important and carefully developed through use of bass, neutral space, and other songwriting mechanisms. The Empty Mirror isn’t just pounding out the rock with a grating sneer over it (as the other band I keep mentioning revels in doing). They’re writing songs, not just rock songs.
When all is said and done, fans of Smashing Pumpkins will find much to love here. Fans of thoughtful indie rock can find things to appreciate as well, as Valdes is a good songwriter. There’s a lot of ways that The Empty Mirror can go to break away from the Pumpkins comparisons, as the band has left a lot of loose ends of their sound unexplored. I’m not sure, however, if that’s something they want to break away from. Interesting, but not long-term listening.
After nearly five years since their last full-length album, 2009 plays host to a new album from the band Skychief. Based out of Akron, Ohio, Skychief is the kind of band you would expect to discover at Warped Tour. The new album Autoexciter is a testament to this with 13 tracks of hard punk rock. Of the 13 tracks, 75% of the sound is generic. While the songs are not necessarily bad, the majority of them won’t leave a memorable tune in your ear.
After nearly a decade of playing together, the four members of Skychief have created an album that shows influence from bands such as Kiss and Smashing Pumpkins. Also noted is the resemblance to the earlier days of Blink 182 on tracks like “Desire.” Although lacking some of the clean and developed sound of Blink, Skychief has two vocalists that play off each other well on the tracks. However, the vocals focus more on the “scream-singing” style and suffer from occasional pitch issues.
An interesting addition to the album is the song, “Naughty is Nice.” The song begins by channeling classic rock vocals that exude a more mature sound than the garage punk vocals of tracks like “10 Hours.” The last minute of the song goes into a short speech set to a rock instrumental, and it actually works for them. Following up on the inventiveness of this song could be the key to help Skychief break away from common rock clichés in the future.
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.