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Month: April 2009

Norman Music Festival Features: Traindodge

Traindodge had one of the earliest slots at the Norman Music Festival, and the opening slot at the Red Room venue. Having reviewed their album On a Lake of Dead Trees at the very beginning of Independent Clauses, I was interested to see what Traindodge had morphed into over the six years since I had heard them.

The guys in Traindodge are an older lot, which surprised me somewhat when they set up their drums/bass/guitar set-up. The Traindodge I knew was heavy…really heavy. They dispelled any uneasiness I may have had when they tore into their first song. Their brand of rock is heavy on dissonance and yelled vocals, but it also features intricate drumming patterns, digital beats, keyboards, and synthesizer backing. These never drop them into kitschy range, though; much like the Appleseed Cast, they use the more melodic elements of their sound as droning backdrops, stabbing asides, and gritty atmosphere.

Their sound was energizing and somewhat mesmerizing; the keys and beats sucked me in, while the guitars, drums and bass pummeled their way in afterwards. These guys can write a rock song, that is for sure.

Another interesting aspect of Traindodge is the fact that they have reached past the point of pretension. They have been doing this for so long that they don’t have to put on a show to make themselves feel comfortable. They could have played to a thousand or half a dozen people (there were about 50 people there, perhaps, by the end), and they would have performed exactly the same. They were having fun, and the fact that they were truly interested and excited in what they were doing for the sake of what they were doing made their set great.

They have a new album coming out at the beginning of June; I would recommend picking it up. Highly recommended for fans of Appleseed Cast, Life and Times, Dredg, Muse, etc.

Photons Are Glorious

Photons have got some serious talent, if Glory! EP is any indication. Even with only four songs, the album displays a depth of talent and songwriting that most bands never develop, and this is just their first effort. Their sound is entrancing, mixing dream-like instrumentals with punchy hits and wailing lyrics.

“Waves and Gamma Rays” starts off Glory! EP. The instrumentation isn’t that of your typical rock band; specifically, they don’t use any bass guitar. Paired with lots of color instrumentation, the Photons produce a very light-hearted, cheery sound. Though short, “Waves and Gamma Rays” is a fun little number, and piqued my curiosity for the remainder of the EP. In comparison to other bands, I drew a fairly strong correlation to The Polyphonic Spree’s sound, though lead vocals sound more like they’re from The Decemberists or Gogol Bordello.

The title track “Glory!” opens with rock and wailing lyrics that really come into their own, sounding plaintive and passionate. So far as I can tell, there wasn’t any post-processing done on the recording of this album, lending it something of a garage-rock sound. It isn’t what I was expecting, but the raw feel of the vocals and lack of bass are really working well here. Near the end of the track, backup vocals come in and really complete the song.

“Where Were You Last Night” brings in some of the most fascinating instrumentation of the album. It starts with some fun percussion – marimba, or maybe xylophone? Something like that. In an unexpected turn, bassoon enters at around forty-five seconds, and it works surprisingly well for them. It’s really making their sound unique and a pleasure to hear. The more I listen to Glory! EP, the more I’m getting a feel for the characteristic sounds of the Photons. You can expect those emotional vocals from their front man, periodic backup vocals, an unfinished and slightly raw sound, and unique instrumentation.

The album closes with “Witness Protection,” and gets back to the light-hearted feel it opened with, which seems to be an over-arching theme. The song features dual male and female lead vocals, as well as a backup ensemble. The tone and energy level wind down from the previous two songs, but still comes across as very fun, and very much reminiscent of The Polyphonic Spree. Really, I can’t wait to hear a full-length album from these guys, and I somewhat selfishly hope I get to review it. Do yourself a favor and give these guys a listen.

Citizen 5's Circles: Super Globalized Yet Super Indie

Citizen 5, out of Norman, OK, is a band of many roots, musically and geographically. Musically, they range from pop country of the lead singer Jimmilea Manley to the Latin influences of keyboardist Ricardo Sasaki to the heavy rock of guitarist Scott Sunderman to the indie influences of bassist Jason Long.

They come from many places, from Bolivia to Mexico to just local homegrown Oklahomans. Citizen 5 is unique in that they are a globalized band, which ties into their name, connected with the fact that they are five citizens of the world. This is where they are talented, and even the title of the album plays on the interconnection of everyone.

Definitely Citizen 5’s melding of genres and styles helps make them unique an indie market where being unique is a prerequisite for success. The intro and outro, for example, are Latin-influenced,with a talented trumpeter from the premier mariachi band in Oklahoma playing a Latin dirge. New wave influences can be heard in much of the music, notably in “Make it Real,” where singer Jimmilea Manley’s strong and soaring vocals add a womanly, southern twang, strangely complimenting the indie and psychedelic influences already at play. Add to that their retro eighties-like chord progressions, you’d think these guys would be going overboard. But the band manages to make solid pop songs that tie all these influences together without really jumping off the experimental cliff.

I had the chance to sit down keyboardist and producer Ricardo Sasaki, who said Citizen 5 has been influenced by acts ranging from Led Zeppelin to David Bowie to Oklahoma’s greatest recent psychedelic success story, the Flaming Lips. Produced by very indie label Ares Recording (which has only been in business for about three weeks), right next door to a Starlight Mints-owned Opolis, a live act club, Citizen 5 definitely has the indie cred to make a footprint on the music world outside the local scene.

But more important than the connections that Sasaki has from his eighteen years of producing and world tromping is just the talent I heard when listening to Circles. Sometimes its buried, but I can still hear it – this is a band that has yet to realize its potential. Things I was impressed with include the way the band manages to craft very familiar lyrics and chord progressions without sounding cliché. Perhaps the influence of all the aforementioned backgrounds of the members of Citizen 5 keep things fresh, like a mango from South America or a homegrown tomato from an Oklahoma backyard.

Sasaki himself said that their next LP, currently untitled and due for release in a few months, is better than the first. I am eagerly awaiting that release, hoping that in it that the band’s voice rings stronger than the first. If I had to guess, I would say the band’s voice can be found from the melding of their different backgrounds, musical and geographical. I think that if they just somehow amplified all these influences and dared to experiment a little more, they could be scary good.

But for what it’s worth, I recommend Citizen 5 and Circles heartily. It’s a fun indie/retro listen.

Norman Music Festival

I’m hitting up the Norman Music Festival today. I’ll be tweeting things as I go. I’ll be posting full reviews with some pictures throughout this upcoming week. This does pre-empt some of our scheduled coverage, but we’ll jump right back on track on Wednesday or Thursday. Bands most excited to see: Uglysuit, Man Man, the Non, Sugar-Free Allstars. Default interest on Of Montreal, but I only know two or three of their songs.

But I did enjoy how I described them to a friend who hadn’t heard of them:

“Take Sufjan 33 records and bump the speed up to forty-five, then through in a high-pitched singer. Then they all look like David Bowie, Ziggy Stardust era. Then you add some girls in the mix, and you’ve got Of Montreal.”

It’s a pretty poor description, but hey. It’s Of Montreal. What do you expect?

For the Love of Pop

Marc Sirdoreus, aka Marc with a C, is a giving person. The entirety of his newest album, Losing Salt, is available for download on his website. In fact, he has done this with all of his albums, and there are nine of them. If your first reaction to this is “say whaaat?” then don’t worry – you weren’t the only one.

It seems that the reason for this is simple – Marc loves making records, and he loves getting them out there, no strings attached. Marc describes himself as a “prolific artist by nature,” a statement that can’t be denied when you look at his recent releases. There’s also the option of donating to Marc for his musical generosity.

Losing Salt is definitely another Marc with a C staple – a DIY manifesto full of acoustic, witty pop songs, most of which tell a story. It opens with the hilarious “I Will Repossess Your Heart,” in which the narrator threatens to take a girl’s heart by physical force if necessary. Its bubbly delivery combined with lines like “they will crack open your ribcage and take it away surgically” should crack up any listener. “Chicken Pox & Star Wars Guys” is one of my favorites on Losing Salt for several reasons: it’s undeniably cute, it’s super catchy, and it name-drops Boba Fett. The song is from the perspective of a little kid stuck inside because he’s got chicken pox, and all he wants to do is play with his “Star Wars guys outside.” Combine this concept with a heavy dose of pop fun, and that’s gotta be a recipe for success.

“You’ve Got This Curse” has a great chorus, even if it doesn’t quite match the tone of the rest of the song. The verses feel a bit unsettling, but the chorus is upbeat. It’s a little incongruent, but the overall song is still fun. “He Left You for a Punk Rock Girl” is another narrative song with funny lyrics, but Marc with a C can’t fail in this category, so I say, keep ‘em coming. This one’s got falsetto background vocals that add to the humor.

Marc’s voice sounds nasally at times, but it actually works with his type of songs. His vocals sound really good in the ballad “You Do Not Exist,” which I’m pretty sure is about an obsessive guy with an imaginary girlfriend. I’m not really feeling the spacey “Magazines” because it doesn’t fit in with the rest of Losing Salt, and it’s too long. But despite this, the album closes with on a strong note with “If These Walls Could Talk,” where Marc harmonizes quite nicely with himself. Its snarky, sometimes frantic, delivery matches the lyrics: “if these walls could talk they probably would have nothing much to say,” and later, “my neck hurts from all the ways I slouch.” I can’t believe that this song is autobiographical though – Marc just seems too darned motivated and driven. Check out his latest release on his website, and give Marc with a C some love for giving out his music so readily.

Mesmerized by Cryptacize

There are some artists who don’t do anything more than retread familiar tones and grooves, and others who go so far out of their way to “challenge your perception of music” that the product becomes distinctly unenjoyable. In between those two extremes is a territory where musicians find a happy balance between the two pursuits. That territory is where you can find Cryptacize and their new album Mythomania.

Their sound includes familiar elements of rock, alternatingof artists like Radiohead, The Shins, and Architecture in Helsinki. Mythomania has two main elements constantly at odds – the guitar and drums providing a solid foundation on which the music is based, and light, floating vocals that see male and female vocals, and the periodic use of keyboard or organ. At various times they reminded me m to be almost the exact opposite of the instrumentals. “Tail And Mane” is a fun example of this, and gave me impressions of a boardwalk or circus scene. The instrumentals and vocals are sometimes on different time signatures, melting in and out of phase with each other. On the song “What You Can’t See Is,” this technique works to great effect.

In “Blue Tears,” the guitar is a standout, providing a wicked intro. Rhythm on this song is fascinating, and indicative of the quality over the whole album. It’s driving, fun, and fresh, providing great contrast against the vocals.

One of my favorite tracks was “The Loving Sun.” Heavily distorted guitar follows a keyboard opening. It’s paired with a soft female vocal part, and makes for a great sound. It’s a short track, but I love it. Male backup vocals and some great harmonizing seal the deal for this song.

In the interest of full disclosure, I haven’t been able to listen to this entire album. I’m working out of China, with a somewhat less-than-stellar internet connection. I’ve gone through my three allotted downloads, with each of them failing. Frankly, it’s killing me. There are five tracks at the end of the album I haven’t been able to hear, but if the others are any indication, they’re probably really cool.

With Mythomania, Cryptacize demonstrates greater musical depth and capability than your average band. If you’ve got the scratch, this is an album well worth purchasing.

John Calvin's debut EP impresses and confuses

Charlie Brown once uttered, “There is no heavier burden than great potential.” I kept coming back to this thought as I repeatedly listened to John Calvin‘s debut EP The Walls of the City. Calvin delivers several instances of remarkable pop/folk songwriting throughout the EP, but it seems that there are just as many puzzling occurences and glaring missteps to follow the highlights.

John Calvin at Second Wind, April 3, 2009
John Calvin at Second Wind, April 3, 2009

John Calvin’s sound owes a heavy debt to Joseph Arthur. I have no idea if Calvin knows of Arthur, but Calvin’s ideas on songwriting are very similar to Arthur’s. Both have the acoustic guitar as their main instrument, but dabble in piano and electric. Both have a kitchen-sink mentality to songwriting. Both have a pseudo-hippie feel to their lyrics and sound. That being said, John Calvin’s writing never worships or emulates Arthur; it would just be a really, really great split EP or tour idea.

The differences are important: where Arthur’s voice is low, Calvin’s is high. It’s not new-school emo high, but he’s definitely a tenor. And, most importantly, Calvin’s songwriting is not as refined as Arthur’s. If you thought Arthur had a lot of things going on in his work, you will be slightly astounded by the number of ideas that go into a standard Calvin song.

Both these differences are a blessing and a curse; John Calvin’s high voice makes his sound distinctly his own. While there are influences from Dave Matthews, Ben Harper, OAR, and many other hippie/pop/folk outfits, Calvin’s voice sets him apart. It is good. Unfortunately, his voice does not sustain warble or cover miscues very well, and this creates some rather unfortunate moments (“Spit That Out” is particularly difficult to listen to).

One of John Calvin's many guitar faces.
One of John Calvin's many guitar faces.

His kitchen-sink mentality makes tracks such as “Sleep Well” and “Song to Make the Stars Fall” really, really interesting. “Sleep Well” is just under six minutes, and the amount of musical ideas packed into the track (played by guitar, piano, dual violin, electric guitar, and female vocals) creates a mesmerizing effect. “Song to Make the Stars Fall” has a similar mentality with a similar effect. At its worst, strange things make their way into his songs and throw off the groove (“Spit it Out” has strangely distorted vocals and electronic blips and glitches throughout).

It is easy to declare that John Calvin is at his best when he’s singing chilled-out tunes with a lot of instrumentation. If Sufjan Stevens had a little more hippie in him, he and John Calvin could be best friends. In fact, at Calvin’s CD release show, he covered two Sufjan tracks: the jubilant “Chicago” and the sorrowful “Casimir Pulaski Day.” Both were standout moments of the show, as nearly ten musicians covered the stage and created a veritable orchestra.

His show showed a different side of him than his album presents; his album is focused on his acoustic-based pop/folk, while his live show was much louder and much more electric. John Calvin certainly knows his way around an electric guitar, and he was very entertaining to watch. He made several guitar faces that I have never seen before during guitar solos – it was fun.

His mellower work was more musically interesting, but no one would be able to say that seeing John Calvin rock out wasn’t entertaining. He worked the audience pretty well, and made the show rock until he unveiled his stronger, mellower pieces.

John Calvin has a love of many types of music, and his live shows and album display that love. There are plenty of great things about that: his songwriting is varied, his melodies are catchy, his instrumentation is not cliche, and his overall product has a very comfortable feel to it. But there is much room for improvement: his songwriting vision needs to clarify some more and his vocal performances need to solidify. John Calvin has set a good pace for himself with this release, but now he needs settle in to a groove  and figure out where he’s exactly going.

John Calvin, getting into it at Second Wind.John Calvin getting into it.

Ringer T refines their Midwestern sound to a T

For those of you who have never heard Ringer T, Hello, Goodbye is the perfect introduction to their folk-laden, Americana rock sound. Unfortunately, the things that make this album such a good primer also bring up some potential problems for the future.

There are few bands that sound more genuinely American than Ringer T. Their deeply Midwestern sound incorporates a heavy dose of Paul Simon-esque pop songwriting, folksy drumming and strumming, old school rock n’ roll, some country twang, and a large amount of earnestness in the vocals. It may sound like a lot going on, but it never is. In fact, these songs are very easy to listen to. The first time I listened to this album, I felt like I had known these songs forever. They are comfortable to the ear; the songwriters have crafted songs with structures that never feel cliche but still  make pleasant use of resolution and familiar chords.

One of the reasons that the songs sound so familiar is that at least four out of the ten tracks have been previously recorded on Ringer T albums or EPs. While this is mildly frustrating for veteran listeners, it brings no hindrance to those who are listening for the first time. They get to hear the best tracks of Ringer T, without any of the filler or weaker tracks.

The problem lies in that even though the four old tracks are re-recorded, they still fit perfectly into Hello, Goodbye. Ringer T is not growing. While they have refined their craft to a razor-sharp edge (the new version of “Cut the Cords” makes mincemeat of the old version in terms of precision, clarity and power), they haven’t pushed the musical envelope at all with Hello, Goodbye. The songs are great; any first time listener that gets past Grant Geertsma’s voice is going to be enamored with Ringer T. But if Ringer T puts out many more albums in this distinct motif, they’re going to run into problems.

One thing they can do is stop writing about breakups; it seems that every Ringer T song is based on the same traumatic breakup. There is a long-standing American pop music tradition of writing about breakups, but Ringer T practices this tradition without respite (except for the still-mildly-depressing “Where I Long to Go”). Even Spiritualized’s Ladies and Gentlemen, We are Floating in Space (one of the most despondent breakup albums ever) has upbeat moments in it that have nothing to do with the relationship. Ringer T needs to break out of their funk and move on to new things in their lives, musically and lyrically.

There is strong evidence that Hello, Goodbye will be the culmination of this era of Ringer T’s musical life. They have refined their deeply affecting and superbly crafted folk/pop/rock to a T. If they use this album as a springboard to better and bigger things, they have a bright future ahead of them. If they keep rehashing their formula, they will only get so far. I hope that they have some tricks up their sleeve for the next release. In the meantime, Hello, Goodbye is highly recommended for fans of Wilco, Ryan Adams, the Jayhawks, Damien Jurado, The Elected and Neil Young.

What's this gospel doing in my indie?

I freely admit it – I’m not very qualified to review a gospel album. I love Elvis’s His Hand in Mine, but that’s probably not a very fair comparison to make. (That’d be like comparing a local painter to Michelangelo.) I’m also a big Ray Charles fan, but his music is only gospel-influenced – it’s not actually gospel. I’ve heard a few gospel singers perform live before, and I’ve always been impressed by their sheer technical ability, but I don’t really know anything about the current gospel scene. However, when Will McGowan sent his album Peace Be Still to Independent Clauses, he showed some serious spunk. (We’ll rule out confusion and misunderstanding.) I admire his aplomb, so I decided to challenge myself with a gospel review.

The album is not exactly what I was expecting, probably because I don’t think I’ve heard any new gospel songs. The modernity of Will McGowan’s music definitely threw me off a little at first. There is drum or percussion programming in every song, which kind of makes the music sound like 90s R&B. (But perhaps that was what he was going for?) One song even has a short rap (“Have Your Way”). That said, however, the album’s songwriting is more original than that music of a lot of Christian rock bands, with their insistence on this structure: verse, chorus, verse, chorus, chorus a cappella, chorus with an instrumental build-up, chorus repeated ad nauseum. McGowan wrote, co-wrote, or arranged all the songs on Peace Be Still, and there is impressive songwriting ability showcased in the album. The thirteen tracks have a consistency and a similar feel, but are all subtly different.

McGowan’s voice is smooth and easy to listen to. He sings in an effortless way that is pleasant and not too showy. I like the songs that feature female background singers, such as “All I Need is You,” because they balance the artificiality of the drum machine. In addition, the strongest tracks are the ones that feature “real” instruments, so my advice to Will McGowan would be to think about maybe rounding up some more musicians. My favorite song from Peace Be Still is the ballad “I Can Call You Friend,” where McGowan plays piano. I think his music would be a lot stronger if he kept things as simple and clean as he does in this song, but overall, this release from Will McGowan is solid and shows a lot of promise.

Hopes and Dreams dashed on the rocks

In a world full of Fall Out Boys, emo bands and imitators, the first several measures of Faster Faster’s Hopes and Dreams show that this band has done next to nothing to change that world.

Faster Faster brings nothing new or interesting to the table of bubble gum pop rock. This is everything you would expect – high-toned vocals that try to sound happy when the lyrics are about immature teenage love with song titles that try too hard to be clever. If you’ve ever listened to Fall Out Boy, Panic! At The Disco, Armor For Sleep or any of the other number of bands with similar sounds, you know what to expect.

The musicianship at work is good. The group is obviously more than capable of playing their instruments well. Randall Dowling and Christian Mosely are both obviously adept guitarists, able to fill the gaps between vocals with compelling hooks. The bass and drums tend to take a backseat, the bass more so than the drums. Vocalist Kyle Davis is a mixed bag. He obviously has a strong set of pipes, but his style ends up sounding like an odd fusion of Panic! At The Disco’s Brendon Urie and Thursday’s Geoff Rickly and it doesn’t come off well. It just sounds derivative.

The main problem with Hopes and Dreams is that it just doesn’t seem to show any originality. It’s not that these guys are necessarily a bad group of musicians, it’s just that they’re sticking too much to their influences. Faster Faster simply comes off sounding like a good cover band than a band in its own right, which is simply unfortunate.