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Month: February 2009

Prepare for Take-off with Bears in the Yukon

You May Die In The Desert started out as a guitar and bass duo from Seattle before morphing into what they are today—a three-piece instrumental group. Bears in the Yukon is a purely instrumental album, consisting of seven tracks. I automatically assume that boredom will ensue when it comes to purely instrumental albums, but this day I was in luck. You may Die In The Desert (YMDITD) has immense technical skill. One of the first bands I thought of in comparison was the technical, instrumental aspect of Between the Buried and Me.

The sound could be described as ambient, atmospheric, spacey; the type of music that would be playing if you were to suddenly take flight. Seriously–if I was so lucky as to have a spaceship come into my possession, this is what I would be pumping through the speakers. It’s the kind of music that inspires the listener to get off their butt and embark on some sort of creative enterprise of their own; I love that in music.

It’s refreshing that the sound of the guitar is played with and changed up—there isn’t just a barrage of distortion or acoustic, which is extremely important in an instrumental album. The tracks all are very cohesive, but I found “The Writer’s Audience is Always Fiction” to be the most enchanting. Amidst flashbacks to songs by Modest Mouse and The Postal Service, I found myself immensely enjoying this track. Its tempo is set by what sounds like a digital high hat drum beat—it stands out from the rest. There are definite elements of jazz infused throughout, not only in this song but in the entire album.

They obviously know what they are doing; the technicality of the layering of sounds, the implications of the drum beats, the airy reverb and delay of the guitars; it all makes for a very intelligent, mystic-feeling musical sojourn through the eardrums.

YMDITD possesses enough skill to keep the listener alert yet relaxed throughout their songs. They go to prove that words aren’t needed where music can suffice and thrive on its own.

The Powerchords – …Think I'm Gonna

My immediate reaction the first time I listened to …Think I’m Gonna by The Powerchords was that I wasn’t very sure I liked it. Before I listened to it a second time, I expressed that sentiment to my friend and editor, Stephen.

Stephen: My apologies. I recant my previous statements and submit a new one – this album is actually pretty awesome.

Hailing from Chula Vista, CA, The Powerchords are on Single Screen Records – a label I have done several reviews for and have been very pleased with. But considering the releases by Visions of a Dying World and The Red Feathers that I had reviewed before lay in the folk-rock arena, I wasn’t really prepared for The Powerchords’ brand of pop-punk, which is probably the reason I was initially turned off by their sound.

But then I gave the album a couple more listens and found that the short-and-sweet, punk rock style was right up my alley. Guitarists Jon Hammer and Seo Parra seem to have a lot of fun with producing the shrilling, catchy riffs and driving crunch of the power chords that drive the band (hence, the band’s name is appropriate). Bassist Craig Barclift is often pounding away with Parra and Hammer on the riffs and the chords. Combined with the catchy lyrics and the high-pitched vocal stylings of Hammer, the band comes off as carrying the torch first lit by The Buzzcocks.

Unfortunately, due to the brevity of the songs and the lack of variation in the formula, it’s hard for many of the songs on the album to stand apart from one another. When listening to it as a whole, it might feel like several of the songs just bleed into one another.

That said, some of the tracks such as “She’s A Virgin” or “Bad Guys” stand out for the sheer catchiness of the lyrics. And to this Wayne’s World fan, “Tia Carrere” was enough to put a nerdy grin on my face.

My recommendation is that if you like old school punk in the vein of The Buzzcocks or The Ramones, you really can’t go wrong with The Powerchords.

Band's got soul

On a bitter, cold night in January, Fundamental Elements rolled into Springfield and warmed things up. Big Momma’s Coffee Shop played host to lead vocalist/trumpeter Russ Mohr, drummer Luke DeJaynes, bassist Mark Dejaynes, guitarist/vocalist Joe McGill , and keyboardist/vocalist Dustin Burggraaf. With a solid set of songs from their new album The Cycle We’re In and a few older tracks, FE showed Springfield how to do soul. In tracks like “Don’t Say” and “Nobody but You,” Russ breaks out some white-boy rap, Jason Mraz-style. Keyboard and percussion layer together, making most songs even more complex than the accompanying lyrics. Songs like “Asking Myself” and “Straight Fallin” feature Russ’ smooth vocals.  In some places, the whole thing sounds a bit like Maroon 5.

The lyrics are simple and straightforward, a reaction and commentary on the world and love; in this way, the band is classically soul. The band incorporates soul, hip-hop, and a little r&b to create an upbeat, eclectic sound. Fundamental Elements hails from St. Louis and has been touring in the mid-west to get the word out.

When asked to pin down genres of music that really get my blood pumping, I generally don’t include soul. And that’s what’s cool about FE. Their music is a variation from the acoustic, electronic, or just plain weird sound of so many new bands. That’s not to say I don’t love these bands. I do. But it’s good to hear something with a focus on instrumentation. Something about a trumpet-playing rapper in a soul band lends authenticity.

Plajia: Hard to pronouce, hard to classify, easy to like

Beautiful Explosion from the Montreal-based three-piece Plajia is difficult to classify, since the album is extremely diverse, with ambient, rock, pop, and folk elements. But who said that bands need to fit into a genre, anyway? Plajia’s debut full-length album might make you believe that classification is overrated.

The album opens with “Dummy,” an indie-rock lullaby with social commentary. Patrick Pleau’s soaring vocals sound a bit like Matthew Bellamy of Muse, and at times throughout Beautiful Explosion, the vocal lines sound like Muse, too. This is a compliment to the band and a benefit to the listener. “Dummy” starts off a bit slow, with a dreamy and atmospheric feel, but it builds really well and works up to a very rockin’ guitar solo. The song tapers off nicely, creating a well-planned arc effect.

“God’s Waiting in Line” is pretty catchy, and the violin (and flute?) in “Sleeping” are gorgeous in a wow-this-is-making-me-tired way, but Beautiful Explosion really picks up with the title track. It is instantly up-tempo, staccato, and light, which might throw you off after hearing the previous three songs. The surprise, however, is a good one, because “Beautiful Explosion” is a spunky pop song which continues to surprise as you listen. Changing styles right before your ears, this song will encourage the use of the repeat button.

Another track that stands out is the acoustic folk song “Beating the Charms.” While some of Plajia’s slower songs can get a little boring, “Beating the Charms” remains interesting because of its touches of glockenspiel and a pretty little whistling solo. The song changes halfway through, with the addition of bass guitar and more percussion, but the soothing feel remains. I have no idea what this song is about (especially since there are some French lyrics at the end), but it doesn’t really matter since the music is so pleasant.

Beautiful Explosion closes with the scorcher “The Other Side of Squared Pixels,” which also comes out of left field, like the title track. The heavy distortion on guitar, driving drum beat, thumping bass line, and distorted vocal effects are like nothing else on the album. It even transitions into funk for a little while. In fact, several other styles find their way into this eight-minute finale, too. Within the context of the song, these musical shifts sound natural, but taken with the rest of the album, it sounds a little out of place.

This shouldn’t discourage anyone from checking out Plajia, however, because there are some very innovative and interesting moments on this debut. Beautiful Explosion is recommended for anyone who likes surprises, or for someone who can’t figure out what kind of music they like.

Can I make this my soundtrack for my daily routine?

Imagine if funk/dub went ambient. Well, it just did. Loudspeaker Speaker Meets Clearly Human‘s Like 10 Feet Tall is a great addition to the ever-over-stuffed, ever-growing category of  instrumental music.  Loudspeaker Speaker Meets Clearly Human is a wordy name, and it’s not super-creative (it’s the stage names of Jason Falk (Clearly Human) and Chad Imes (Loudspeaker Speaker), but it tells the listener what they’re getting: the cohesive meeting of some musical minds. Basically, Falk plays percussion and Imes has his way with the rest of the sound of the album. That’s not to put Falk out of the limelight, however.

To explain how the two work together, the opener “Loudspeaker Speaker Meets Clearly Human” is a great starting point. Ghostly chime sounds open the album, while Clearly Human’s metallic drumming courts the pace of the chimes. The chimes then get wiped away and Loudspeaker Speaker moves in with some funky bass lines. After a bit of this, the chime sound weaves in and out periodically, which then paves the road for some guitar. Such introductions and removals of sound are methodical and calculated, but help to create a grand musical mosaic.

The album becomes pretty trance-like, and the shifts in tracks will be barely noticed by the average listener.   The second track “No Change” beings with a similar bass line, guitar, and chimes as heard on the opener.Then Loudspeaker Speaker slaps you awake with what sounds like the cross between a terrified scream and a tire squeal. It’s the suggestion that you’ve just walked into these guys’ haunted house of ambient funk.

“Like a Beat-Up El Camino Hittin’ Switches” and “Little Brother FM” are two of the most interesting tracks. With names like those, the instrumentals have a lot of catching up to do. “Little Brother FM” begins with a banging drum beat, that opens for a high-pitched guitar squeak fest. Then, at around a minute and thirty seconds, what sounds like a cello comes in from left field. The track at first suggests a possible interruption with some self-pleasuring guitar wankery, but it becomes clearer that Loudspeaker Speaker is obviously more concerned about creating cohesive tracks.  On “Like A Beat-Up El Camino Hittin Switches,” the drums hit hard sounding and eho-ey that get paired up with a mechanical bell sound.  The best way to imagine it is a clock tower traveling through space. The musical suprises and unique sounds never stop, but to describe them all would take days. It would be better for the reader if that time was spent zoning out to the great beats of Loudspeaker Speaker Meets Clearly Human.

There's no lying about the quality of this EP.

The four-song Demo EP from The Liars Club is one of those rare albums where, upon listening, I begin to wonder why this band hasn’t been signed and become outrageously successful yet. Their sound is tight and focused, like they’ve been playing together for way longer than they actually have. Lead and backup vocals are rich and full, and the instrumentals, while not complicated, are quite enjoyable for the listener.

The first track on the EP, “Wide Open Beaver,” is also the strongest.  The Liars Club has put together a really great sound, evocative of Queens of the Stone Age. The vocals are particularly impressive–very energetic, with just the right tone.

Unfortunately, the next song fails to maintain the excellent pace that “Wide Open Beaver” set. “Wedgewood Hop” is slower and unfocused–almost rambling, musically. This would pass for a decent song elsewhere, but it pales in comparison to the previous track. “Trust Fund” regains the band’s groove with a melodic, slightly haunting bass lick that stays with you even as the rest of the band layer over it.

The EP closes out with a slower, less energetic, more subdued track. With organ! The organ bit is great. “Born on a Friday” shows nice breadth of skill–it’s a total departure from the rest of the album, with periodic breaks into their typical style. This song is one part chill southern rock, one part upbeat Brit rock, three parts AWESOME.

The only thing I’ve come up with in criticism of this album is to suggest slightly more complicated instrumental tracking, because right now it’s a bit too basic. At same time, I really have no grounds for complaint, because they sound great as they are. The Liars Club has great balance and movement, with layering and background vocals that are excellent.

The Demo EP is a solid album, and I’m predicting it’ll only get better. I can’t wait to see where these guys go.

Do you like rock? Yeah? Well, I’ve got a surprise for you: the Demo EP from The Liars Club is free (the legal sort). You can download it here.

RadioRadio – Alarm 1 Alarm 2 EP

I enjoyed RadioRadio’s EP Alarm 1 Alarm 2.  Being a fan of eighties music, this retro-leaning band would seem a pretty good fit for me. And being from my own backyard in Tulsa, OK, makes them all the more interesting. I can probably look forward to a live show sometime soon.

On to the music.  I would classify RadioRadio’s music as alternative retro, with a very big focus on the eighties. Although Alarm 1 Alarm 2 is strong enough to make me pick up their debut album, Watch ‘Em All Come Runnin’, RadioRadio’s Alarm 1 Alarm 2 doesn’t stand out to me.

This made me a little frustrasted, because this shouldn’t be the case. Singer Greg Hosterman has a good voice, and bassist Paul Cristiano really grooves. Drummer Paul Sanders and guitarist Jay Hunt do their parts well.  The production is good, and RadioRadio’s incorporation of electronica is well-placed and not overdone–the bane of much eighties music. Though this band has only been recording and playing since 2007, they have a lot of talent and work cohesively as a group.

So what is it about this EP that makes it so-so to me? The fact that they are retro might have something to do with it. Listening to Alarm 1 Alarm 2, it’s not hard to imagine that it might have come straight out of the eighties. The band’s potential originality is buried under ideas that have already been exhausted.  For example, the bass lines reminded me of Joy Division. This is in and of itself isn’t a bad thing; Interpol’s debut album is highly inspired by Joy Division. The difference between Interpol and RadioRadio is that the former doesn’t sound exactly like the eighties; there are some updates to the sound.

I know it’s unfair to compare RadioRadio with Interpol, one of my favorite bands. RadioRadio do a good a job for what they’re trying to accomplish – be an eighties-inspired rock band. Fans looking for this will love RadioRadio. As for me, someone who has listened to a lot of eighties music, RadioRadio doesn’t seem fresh and new. Perhaps this will not be the case for someone who has not listened to a lot of eighties music.

It seems impossible in today’s world to just be a “normal” rock band. There always has to be some sort of spin that makes the band different – for RadioRadio, that spin is their eighties flavor, which, admittedly, not too many bands do. Unfortunately, at least for me, this keeps some freshness and originality out of their music.

What's a Miss Autopsy?

Miss Autopsy’s The Hill is a confused piece of work.  One-man-band Steve Beyernik delivers punkish, bitter lyrics with the timing of a blues singer over guitar, synths, or piano. That is The Hill: instrumentals riding backseat to the songwriting.  Oh yeah,  there are drums on a couple of tracks, provided by Jason Garner.

Now, putting emphasis on songwriting is not such a bad thing, but the lyrics usually come off as ridiculous and make the listener wonder if this is a serious effort to tap the emotions of the listener. With lines such as “still hold my heart in my hands by the time they find me, yes/it’s a tempting way to die/ that is why I don’t have a knife” on “Telephone Song” help to concrete this assumption. To not help this,  Beyernik’s voice sounds, while not sounding whiny, sounds forced at times.  These elements turn whatever message The Hill is trying to convey, which could possibly be summed up by the lyrics ” I used to love this world” on the title track “The Hill,”  into an awkward, confused parody. It’s the type of humor that brews inside the listener as they decide whether it’s okay to laugh.

While listening to the vocals at times can be entertaining, the instrumentals on The Hill leave much to be desired. The repetitive instrumentals stretch the songs out, molasses-like. The repetitive instrumentals seem like they try to take a minimalist approach, but they are so scarce and empty-sounding that the songs at times, as on “Let the Bodies Lie”, feel like pieces that would be performed to some coffeehouse beatniks that would chastise one for not “getting it”. Well, I don’t get it.

My Soul: Crayon in a Car; These songs: Hot Day

I’m not saying it’s ever easy to tie a musician to a genre, but Griffin House exemplifies this challenge. Perhaps some of this challenge comes from the album’s journey. The music and themes change throughout Flying Upside Down, and where it ends is not where it began.

Griffin House begins Flying Upside Down with a sweet, easy-to-digest acoustic piece. It’s candy. The next track, “I Remember (It’s Happening Again)” isn’t made of the same stuff. This one is a nostalgic tale that parallels Vietnam with the Iraq war. It’s strongly political with strong folk elements; Arlo Guthrie, anyone? It eases up immediately with the next track “Let Me In,” and we’re back on the luv theme for awhile. On the song “The Guy That Says Goodbye to You is Out of His Mind” let me say, I am cognizant of sentimentality (and the grammatical error in the title), and my ear is fine-tuned to the sound of heartstrings being played. This song does just that. But guys, it’s so pretty, what can you do?

The classic rock sound of songs like “Live to be Free,” “Heart of Stone,” and title track “Flying Upside Down” are in the style of the Rolling Stones and far in style from the earlier acoustic melodies. “Flying Upside Down” is the arc of House’s story, sung like a man at his end: “Take me all the way/if you take me at all/cause I got nothing but the ground to break my fall.” Oh, the emoting! The guitar and piano, layered with Andrew Bird-style violin and whistling, make a powerful song musically as well as vocally. The last song on Flying Upside Down is a complete transformation, a spiritual answer to the woes and aches that fill the album. “Waiting For the Rain to Come Down” is an all-out Johnny Cash-style gospel song. “I’m like a child on the inside God/But guilty of the crime/Your innocence remains in me/When you strip away the grime/Devils crawl around my house and/Underneath my skin/I’m ashamed that when sin knocked/I chose, I chose to let it in” If lyrics like that don’t illicit a response, check your pulse. You might need a new heart.

Folk. Pop. Americana. Call it what you will, it’s an album you can’t help but put on repeat. Despite some overly sentimental moments, the entire project is comes off as an earnest bunch of songs. It’s not easy to pull off rock, pop and gospel in one album, but Griffin House’s Flying Upside Down is an album that makes it work.