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Month: November 2009

Cameron Blake is En Route to Greatness.

En Route, the second album from singer/songwriter Cameron Blake, is a refreshingly unique masterpiece.  Although the Baltimore musician has his master’s in violin performance, he is clearly a man of many talents.  With fantastic orchestrations from the young musician, the album will take you on a journey paved not only with violin, but beautiful vocals, piano, harmonica, cello, and acoustic guitar, to name a few.  In the beginning of your listening experience, you may find yourself struggling to pin him down under one genre.  The album is a smooth combination of acoustic, pop, blues, and largely folk sound.  It would do him an injustice to not give him credit for his wide range of appeal.  Let’s just label him as this: “talented.”

It’s hard to compare Blake to any one other artist, but fans of everyone from Dave Matthews to The Swell Season will surely enjoy this record.  The album opens with “This is All,” a track that instantly makes you feel like you are listening to a rebellious poet in the bottom of a dark jazz club.  Farther along on the record is “On the Way to Jordan,” which is more than suitable for a pub set in the heart of Dublin.  A favorite is “Interlude,” a slower-paced song that would be fantastic on the soundtrack of an indie flick.  The piano and delicate harmonies will chill you to the bone in the same way as the painfully beautiful songs written by Damien Rice.

Blake provides fascinating vocals through out the album, sometimes emanating a similar sound to Ben Gibbard from Death Cab for Cutie.  There is a pleasant clarity in his vocals that allows the listener to enjoy his unique lyrics.  In “Lonely Rooms” he writes, “I held her marigold smile-apple scent rain through slanting silver-lines/ I am the prince and the fool-survived by a breath, a thread, a single room.”  Pure poetry.

If you decide to check out one independent artist this year, make sure it’s Cameron Blake.  With excellent musicianship, thoughtful writing, and exceptional vocals, you won’t be disappointed.

See, The Name is Ironic Because… Never Mind

Fool’s Gold is an LA-based octet that recently released their self-titled debut, Fool’s Gold. It’s honestly difficult to adequately capture their sound – some make comparisons to Vampire Weekend, but that’s like saying a Lotus is similar to a Toyota because they have the same engine. What you’ve got here is a homegrown fusion of Afrobeat, reggae, jam, and a smattering of rock and pop. The overall sound is a tropical/island one, for the most part. Then lead singer Luke Top comes in with Hebrew vocals, and where does that leave you? LA, apparently. Without further ado, let’s dive in.

“Surprise Hotel” is the lead track, and possibly the best known of their offerings. It’s got their signature tropical sound, and opens heavy on strings and guitar before adding in all-Hebrew vocals around one and a half minutes in. It’s really chill music, and reminds me a bit of Israel Kamakawiwo’ole if the big guy had more energy. Fool’s Gold does a great job of harmonizing and balancing vocals against their guitar and other instrumentation.

Later, “The World Is All There Is” demonstrates a much more emphatic African drum influence. The song has a strong international flavor – not that others don’t, but this one uses it to greater effect. The Hebrew vocals layer seamlessly over everything.

Frankly, I can barely even distinguish between everything that’s going on here. There’s the lead vocals, backup vocals, drums, auxiliary percussion like shakers and tambourine, guitar, saxophone, and it’s all blending and weaving in and out of each other. As good as the preceding songs are, this one is my favorite, if only for the irresistible energy it displays. There’s even a smooth a capella outro at the end, too. Can’t lose!

Nearer the end, instrumental track “Night Dancing” comes in with more of a latin influence than other songs. It’s fitting considering the multiethnic (and specifically hispanic) backgrounds that many of the band’s members have. It’s also faster than any of the other songs, with a driving bass beat and some sweet brass popping in periodically, making a nice addition to the saxophone that frequents so many of their songs.

This really is one of those albums that means more when experienced as a whole instead of individual songs. From “Surprise Hotel” and “Night Dancing” to other tracks like “Nadine” and “Poseidon,” Fool’s Gold has a sound that’s fresh, new, and incorporates about a dozen musical traditions into a wild medley that is all their own. Don’t be shy, go ahead and pick up Fool’s Gold. Your ears will thank you.

Unnecessary distortion covers up quality sound from Dan Webb and The Spiders

Dan Webb and The Spiders have put forth a new album that hints of greatness underneath layers of unnecessary mudding and distortion.   Released in fall 2009, The self titled album features 9 tracks that take the listener on a roller coaster ride of catchy vs. unmemorable.   The sound ranges from that of garage punk to California beach-rock.  Though the band is Boston-based, they have an appeal that resembles the “west coast sound” often featured on teen shows like The OC (rip).  Think Nada Surf meets garage punk and seasoned with an extra helping of distortion.

FFHH tries to break from the pop-punk mold

I grew up listening to pop-punk, so I have a fondness for it that goes far beyond the marginal toleration most reviewers give it. I also grew up listening to local bands from faraway places like Baltimore. So, FFHH (which is now going by the abbreviation of their former title Faster Faster Harder Harder) has several legs up on the competition with their Baltimore-based pop-punk.

FFHH is much more AFI than Blink-182, though. The lead vocalist occasionally strikes an almost uncanny resemblance to Davey Havok, especially in “Calm Down,” “My Vision” and title track “All the Lights.” When he drops into his lower register, it’s not as apparent, as in “The Landing.” When his vocals don’t ding the RIYL meter in my head, the musical resemblances to A Fire Inside fall away as well; but the music is not strong enough to withstand the vocal tone similar to Davey Havok’s to stand out while that vocal tone is happening.

That’s one of the strengths and weaknesses of this album; it’s easily taggable within the dark punk zone. There are conscious steps outside it, as “Start Again” is a lumbering, epic-sweeping intro track that features female vocals prominently. “Accident Scene” features a different vocalist, an upbeat tone, and more female vocals. “Count Down” is a five-minute instrumental track that never gets boring. It fits perfectly in the flow and feel of the album. And it segues right into “The Landing,” which is one of the best tracks on the album. If they can put together more songs like this, they’ll be very successful. The melodies are solid, the bass work is tight, the drums are efficient, and the guitar work is mood-building and rocking in turns. This is how they should be composing all the time.

FFHH has a lot of promise. They are skilled musicians, and their ability to form melodies is undeniable. They have the skills necessary to be a great rock band, but they need to get over some blocks in their way. Several tracks on All the Lights are excellent, but they’re held down by a bunch of songs that are just okay. I would recommend that you go see a live show of theirs (because this stuff would have to translate excellently) and download “Count Down” and  “The Landing” from iTunes. If you like AFI, you should definitely invest in the full thing; you’ll love this. I’m interested to see where FFHH goes from here.

All of Dignan impresses at The Opolis

South Texas band Dignan may have arrived on the stage quietly, and there was no pomp and circumstance as the five members of Dignan unpretentiously and unassumingly began their set. But that certainly didn’t last long, as the band launched into their thumping, pounding live show at the Opolis in Norman, Oklahoma. Their strong, big sound and masterly cohesive performance seemed all the more impressive given their humble attitudes.

Each band member had something special to offer to the show. Lead singer and guitarist Andy Pena sounded like he was putting his whole heart and soul into his vocals. Between the powerful and often dark songs, Pena would utter a soft, “Thank you. Thanks for listening,” before again giving it all he had.

Balancing harmonies were provided by keyboardist Heidi Plueger and David Palomo, who played accordion, glockenspiel, trumpet, or other instruments as needed. Plueger’s melodies on the keyboard fit perfectly with the group’s sound by softening the timbre a bit (but not too much), and Palomo’s diverse array of instrumentation always added a slight kick, punch, or accent that shook things up. At one point when the glockenspiel threatened to escape from its stand, nearly tipping over, Palomo didn’t miss a beat and continued to provide harmonies. (Luckily someone in the front helped him out.)

Bassist Devin Garcia was responsible for a lot of what made the songs sound so full, driving, and forceful. While Dignan’s drummer was unable to be present at this show, his substitute Bryan Yeager seemed very natural in the role. Yeager proved that you don’t need a big, fancy drum set to do big and fancy things. Even with his sparse setup, Brian showed himself to be a creative and innovative musician. He was quite able to do more with less.

Also impressive about many of the songs performed was their organic and logical progression to a climax. The Opolis crowd appreciated it every time. Dignan played many songs from their recent release Cheaters & Thieves, but one particular highlight was definitely the energetic “Two Steps.” Check out this song and others on their myspace, where the album is also now available. Dignan will continue their current tour with several shows in Texas, concluding in a show with Cursive in their hometown McAllen, Texas.

Jenny and Tyler combine to write charming folk songs

I’m really picky about female vocalists; it’s just the way I am. That’s why my discovery of Jenny and Tyler is so exciting. The former part of the moniker has a wonderful voice that elevates the duo’s acoustic-based folk tunes to a level that wouldn’t be achieved simply by the rest of the album alone.

That’s not to minimize Tyler’s contributions at all. He contributes the guitar work that dominates the songwriting on this album. And it’s great folk songwriting that occasionally transcends the barriers of the genre and moves into epic pop song mode (as “The Deepest Part of Me” does). 

Skyline Circle Rounds Up Some Upbeat Piano-Pop

I am addicted to pop music. I play it, I listen to it, I write about it. So when a band comes along that delivers brain-grabbing melodies, singalongs, and musical skill to boot, I jump on that like a trampoline. Thus, cue the applause for Skyline Circle.

Skyline Circle consists of a pianist/vocalist, a guitarist/bassist/female vocalist and a drummer. If that sounds like a lot of duties for three people, it is. But they pull it off excellently. Whether playing the bouncy, upbeat single “Don’t Let Go (Merry-Go-Round),” the driving “Silent War,” the lighthearted and fun “Late” or the pensive “Time and Money,” they fit neatly into a groove and hit it.

This is primarily accomplished because Nathan Lauderdale is a versatile pianist, able to play in multiple styles. He expertly channels Ben Folds on the “The Letter Folds” – an open letter to the famous pianist. He nods to Relient K in form and lyric on opener “Time and Money,” and he releases emotive balladry for closer “Waiting.” None of these sound forced. There are differing levels of prowess at each (“Silent War” gives me shivers, while “Road Trip” takes a while to make an impact), but the underlying thread is the same: Nathan Lauderdale is really good at piano.

The vocals, both female and male, are excellent throughout. If there was to be a signature style of Skyline Circle, it would be their use of vocals to create mood. The moments in which they use background vocals are the most memorable: the la-la section in “Late”, the chorus of “The Letter Folds” (which also features some impressive falsetto leads), the round on “Don’t Let Go,” and the majority of title track “Lights in Perfect Rows.” They don’t just use it as a throwaway element in their songs; the use of multiple vocal tracks sets their songs apart from other artists.

The highlights here are many, but the crescendo of “Lights in Perfect Rows” is worth mention. Skyline relies heavily on piano and bass, so the use of electric guitar to make the statement in the most important part of the song is unique and memorable. If the guitar had been used in the same capacity throughout, the power of the moment would have been diminished. Their ability to notice and use that weapon in their arsenal sparingly is a direct nod to their songwriting skill.

And while they are definitely skilled songwriters, the many moods that this album spans create a somewhat jarring effect on the listener. Many albums have mood shifts, but Lights in Perfect Rows never establishes a consistent mood that would enable mood shifts. This makes the album excellent to listen to in singles or on shuffle, but a bit confusing to listen to as a whole.

Lights in Perfect Rows establishes Skyline Circle as a band with solid, enjoyable songwriting skills. They need to settle into a consistent groove that runs throughout their songs, but within each song they know what they’re doing. Fans of Ben Folds, Ben Kweller, Regina Spektor, and other piano-based pop will love this release. Check out “Silent War,” “Don’t Let Go (Merry-Go-Round)” and “Late.”

We Are The City Unleashes Exciting Indie-rock on the World

It’s hard to judge objectively something that you are intimately acquainted with. Vocalists have a tough time taking other vocalists seriously, and writers are notoriously hard on other writers. That’s why We Are the City‘s accomplishment with In a Quiet World is so astonishing. They’ve made the piano (something I play on a daily basis) incredibly exciting.

To clarify the staggering worth of this achievement, consider this: you can be the most talented pianist in the world and still not excite me with your work. I can realize it as incredibly talented and enjoyable (i.e. everything in Ben Folds’ canon), even learn to play it. But get truly excited? Rare as snow in San Francisco.

Fresh-thinking South Texas band to play in Norman

Dignan brings a different meaning to the “indie” tag. Being an independent band means a lot more when you’re coming from the very deep south of Texas. Four of the five members of Dignan hail from just barely north of the border, in McAllen, Texas.

“A lot of times people are surprised that anything is coming from South Texas,” said bass player Devin Garcia.

But despite the immediate idea that this would hinder a group’s success, Garcia believes coming from such an isolated and removed area has had a positive effect.

Beautiful Lies plays it a little safe

For a ’90s kid like myself, Boston-based Beautiful Lies sounds like a blast from the past that I can actually remember. The mainstream music of the ’90s has been subject to (unproductive?) debate, but it can’t be denied that this time period popularized fuzzy garage sounds and the pop-punk category. Beautiful Lies’ revival of the ’90s in their most recent release Yeah, Finally will remind many listeners of this era, but whether one wants to be reminded of awkward roller-rink birthday parties in elementary school is a question yet unanswered.

Yeah, Finally opens with “The End,” ironically, which takes a much bigger cue from alt-country than the rest of the album, and from the group’s previous releases. The very first words, however, don’t let the listener forget that they are listening to a faithfully pop-punk group: “‘You’re an asshole’ was the last thing that she said.”

The up-tempo sing-along “Running Down the Aisles” is more typical of Beautiful Lies, with its persistent drumbeat, tantalizing hooks that lead into catchy choruses, a breakdown three quarters of the way through the song, and slightly formula lyrics. Like much of Yeah, Finally, this song is a bit predictable, but also quite easy to find yourself singing along to before it even ends. “Untitled” seems to take note of this, with its repeated request for the audience/listener to “sing along if you know what I’m saying.” New Found Glory and Blink 182 are channeled in “Running Down the Aisles,” but “Untitled” has more of a minimalistic, power-chord Weezer feel.

“The Answer is Always C” has a sarcastic and caustic tone that can also be found consistently throughout, but its scorching guitar licks and heavier emphasis on punk make this track stand out. Another noticeably different song is “One Thing,” a cutesy plea for people to be nicer to each other (“I wish my waiter could be more polite/ I mean how hard is it to smile?”). The song has some potential, but its collection of clichés and easy rhymes are groan-worthy even before it breaks the fourth wall (“I just want to be clear/ I’m gonna put a new verse here/ but only when I’m sure/ the words will mean a little more”). However, the slower tempo, delightful harmonies, and simple, no-fuss style still make this song worth a listen.

Yeah, Finally, overall, is fun, but also safe. I’d like to see Beautiful Lies take a risk or two, and shake things up lyric-wise.