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Month: December 2009

Daniel G. Harmann changes up his lush songwriting, but not too much

Daniel G. Harmann‘s Our Arms has been kicking around my iTunes far too long without a review. I sat down to listen to it so I could review it, and I realized that I’ve already been listening to it. The three songs on this EP have been through my shuffle, at the end of DGH’s other albums in my iTunes, and generally in my brain for longer than I have realized.

It makes it incredibly easy to sit down and write this review. Harmann’s basic sound is a hyper-romantic, extra-melodic, beauty-washed soundscape; I coined the term “rainy day makeout music” while listening to a Harmann album. That’s just what the music sounds like. This time out, though, DGH has himself a band named The Trouble Starts, making the proper name of this release Our Arms by Daniel G. Harmann and the Trouble Starts. Does the band make a difference in the sound that I so love from DGH?

Well, sort of. Opener “I Became the Ground” is much more upbeat than anything I can remember previously. It still retains the extremely emotional, hyper-romantic vibe, but it’s not as rainy in tone. It’s oddly reminiscent of the jangly pop that Death Cab for Cutie has been churning out these days, and even a little similar to Anberlin’s slower-tempo work. It doesn’t stray too far from the tree, but it’s definitely a new seed in the ground.

“Dee,” however, is a return to normalcy. The song plods along gloriously, with each individual part making stately entrances and exits. The mood is the same one that I have come to know of DGH, and after hearing a deviation from it in “I Became the Ground,” it’s very welcome. The chiming guitar line pushes this song forward as the vocals try to drag it back; the tension makes this an incredibly effective song.

“Knob Creek Neat” is somewhere in the middle. The presence of the Trouble Starts is felt, as there’s a less dreamy feel to the work and much more aggressive moments throughout. But it never breaks the morose tempo that DGH is most comfortable with. The song may be a lot more direct than his previous work, but the Trouble Starts haven’t broken him of slow, dreamy soundscapes: the chorus of the song features his trademark vocal trick (it’s a certain interval jump that I wish I was smart enough musically to name), and the aggressiveness falls out in favor of layered guitar parts and melodicism.

This three-song EP shows that Daniel G. is spreading his wings a bit by heading out with a band in tow. But he’s still the performer that I love, and a couple new members isn’t going to change that. This EP is the best possible way to move forward: one foot in the new, one foot in the old, and one in the middle. I’ll let you deal with the mental image of a three-legged man. Good work, Mr. Harmann. Good work.

Adam Rich's genre-hopping songwriting spans punk, metal, jazz and pop

Adam Rich‘s You Can’t Escape Life is a unique amalgam of punk, metal, pop and rock. It’s not specifically any of these genres; it takes ideas and moods from each genre and sticks them in the others. At its best the album unleashes some really unique and interesting songwriting; at it’s worst, it’s still an interesting experiment.

Instrumental opener “Frizzhead” takes the melodic ideas associated with metal and slaps them into as close to a pop song structure as you can get while still being instrumental. It’s one of the most intriguing tracks of the album, as the melody sticks precisely because it’s out of its usual field of mega-distorted guitars. “Perfect” is an Offspring-esque pop-punk song, down to the gang vocals, but it has a guitar solo and rhythmic breakdown, which is much more common to, you know, metal.  The title track drops next, and it’s a guitar pop song. It has occasional jarring riffs (the punk equivalent of the massive palm mute from “Creep”?), and develops a menacing undertone part of the way through the track.

The tracks continue through the course of the album, combining disparate genres in odd ways, seemingly just to see what would happen. The good news is that it works more often than not; even Rich’s experiment in country-esque sounds (“Glittery Eyes”) is entirely enjoyable. This is an incredible voucher of Rich’s instrumental prowess, as Rich’s scope is almost ridiculously large. For pete’s sake, “Big Blue” is a jazz bass and guitar meditation in the vein of Victor Wooten. And it’s still enjoyable!

This album is not like anything you’ve ever heard before. If you like musical experiments, you’d be well to pick this up. No genre escapes Rich’s genre-hopping songwriting, even though the predominant genres are rock and punk. It’s not for everyone, but it’s certainly got chops. I can’t escape the pull of You Can’t Escape Life.

Jonathan Vassar is a great folk songwriter.

I’ve been reading reviews of Regina Spektor’s far with some confusion. Many of them say that it is not her best work because it’s less experimental and more “normal.” Then I read an essay by David Hajdu in which he asserts that Jack White is beloved because he never really finishes songs. These together cause me to think that there are two types of great songwriter in the world: the great songwriter that is actually incompetent of being a “normal” songwriter and thus writes unusual and wacky works that stick in our head (which is why Spektor’s disjointed breakout album Soviet Kitsch is wonderful, and why everything that Jack White does with a real band is hopelessly boring), and the songwriter that those wacky ones aspire to be.

The problem is that the wacky ones often mature out of their wacky phase, but they don’t often mature into the great songwriters they aspire to be. far has some wonderful tracks on it, but it’s not a Ben Folds album by any stretch of the imagination. Neither is it a Fiona Apple album (although there is some debate as to whether that is something to aspire to, these days). The Dead Weather doesn’t sound normal, but it’s a lot closer to normal than “Black Math” or “Hotel Yorba” or “Seven Nation Army.” The Raconteurs sound, for better or for worse, incredibly average.

It seems that the great songwriters appear full-formed. Ben Folds was cranking out the great songs while he was still in his earliest stages with the Ben Folds Five; Damien Jurado’s best work is spread throughout his fantastic career. They just, you know, show up being awesome.

I think Jonathan Vassar is in the Ben Folds category of great songwriters. The reason for this is that the best tracks on The Fire Next Time are not the minimalist, eccentric ones, but the fully-realized folk/Americana songs. “A Match Made in Heaven” features some great mandolin, a violin, a cello, and a warbling saw in addition to his plaintive acoustic guitar and voice. But instead of feeling cluttered of amateur, each piece locks in. The song wouldn’t be the song without all the parts. It’s a perfectly written song, in that there’s nothing I can knock about it. It has a great melody, it has solid lyrics with meaning and wit, the song sways, and it has a deeply felt emotive quality that refrains from becoming maudlin. In short, it’s perfect. If you like acoustic Americana/folk/country, you will like “A Match Made in Heaven.” It’s impossible not to.

“Saint Josephina” is another fully-realized track that suceeds admirably. “San Jacinto” isn’t quite as engaging as the previous two, but it’s still a solid song. These filled-out songs are the cream of the crop; it would behoove Vassar to stay in this vein. The more experimental tracks, while interesting, aren’t up to part with these songs.

Opener “Nearer My Father’s Wounded Side” starts out with a minute-long intro that serves to confuse more than set the scene. It segues neatly into the rest of the track, which is a profoundly minimalist composition that runs for over five minutes. It’s not a bad song, but it’s just not as engaging as the tightly woven “Match Made in Heaven.” I’ll take “Nearer…” over most folk, but it’s just sad to me that one of the six tracks Jonathan Vassar treats us to is simply not his best work.

To bring it all together, Jonathan Vassar and the Speckled Bird don’t need to get wacky to be heralded as good. Vassar is simply a good songwriter, and the Speckled Bird plays tight and close to that vision. I hope that Vassar and the Speckled Bird continue their partnership and write much more work together, honing their already tight vision. Then they will be huge. They should already be there, but that’s just a matter of time. The Fire Next Time is an excellent EP of tight songwriting, strong melodies, and great mood. It’s a must for folk-lovers.

The Holiday!

Christmas isn’t just a holiday. It’s the holiday. It’s the one that my family goes all-out for. If the rest of the holidays were playing king of the hill in a swimming pool, Christmas would dunk the Fourth of July’s head over and over. That’s just the way it is. My family loves Christmas, so I love Christmas, so everyone should love Christmas.

But as I age, my family’s influence on my opinions is fading. This is normal and even to be desired; it’s a part of growing up. It means that I have to start deciding for myself what is important and what is to be treasured. If I don’t consciously choose to make something important in my life, it will not spontaneously become important.

I didn’t realize that I must prioritize Christmas. Previously, I had Joyeux Noel imposed upon me; on a particular day, Christmas ensued when Mom said, “Go get the decorations.” I didn’t even think about the possibility of not celebrating Christmas.

But when there’s no one to say, “Go get the decorations,” it gets harder. I’ve been super-busy this year and haven’t taken time to celebrate Christmas properly. I didn’t buy a tree (even a little Charlie Brown one) or decorate the house. I haven’t been listening to much Christmas music. I’ve barely started shopping for presents (something I love to do). I haven’t taken initiative; I haven’t made it a point to celebrate Christmas.

Subsequently, I’ve been depressed in the Christmas arena. James actually sent back my first essay on Christmas because it was “anti-“ and “wishy-washy.” Which it was, because I’m anti- and wish-washy on this Christmas. And that’s my fault. I let life get in the way of celebrating Christmas. If I continue to do this, I will never celebrate anything or enjoy life. And that’s wrong. I’m not going to let that happen.

Like a lot of other things that happen to you when you’re growing up, no one really tells you how to start celebrating holidays. They just assume you will. So, consider this my stake in the ground. From now on, I’m celebrating Christmas the way I should, as a real person. Christmas is still the holiday. I just have to make celebrating it a priority as a newly minted adult.

Mittens on Strings excels at psychedelic indie

The eighties killed psychedelic music. The electronic sounds, materialistic excess, and posturing of the lost era of good music put the screws to trippy sounds. There hasn’t been a real resurgence of the signature sound of the sixties and seventies since. There have been scattered bands here and there, but the closest thing to a real resurgence was shoegazer, which was couched in so much elitism and depression that it really doesn’t even count, as it completely misses the easy-going waves of psychedelic tunes.

Mittens on Strings originally confused me, because they’re the sound of modern psychedelic music. The word that kept coming back to mind was “woozy.” The music, when played at appropriate volumes, puts whatever room/car/headphones is playing Let’s Go to Baba’s into a drowsy, hazy state. This isn’t because the music is boring; it’s because songs like “Lou Reed Says” are set up to make you slowly bob your head back and forth. From the swaying tempo to the drooping vocal lines and swooping violin duet, the song just ambles along. That’s not to say it doesn’t get exciting. The song builds to an impressive climax with distorted guitar, huge bass work, and lots of cymbals. It’s just that Mittens on Strings has nailed how to make psychedelic music that you can actual enjoy in the modern realm.

And they’ve done an impressive job of making the whole album listenable as well. The Fleet Foxes-esque indie/folk of “La Middle Ages” is distinct from the bass intro of the appropriately named “Lumbering Giant.” The mournful background vocals of “Flaming Pig” distinguish it from the plucked string section of “A Mountain of Light.” Even the few uptempo tracks are their own entities: the whoa-oh’s in standout “Big Brother” aren’t anything like the plaintive chorus of “Big Black Car,” which is entirely separate from the island sounds (!) of “Vacation.”

But even with all this individuality, each of these tracks retain the Mittens on Strings stamp: low vocals with a morose streak, prominent use of dueling violins, lots of bass work, and dreamily distorted guitars (whether they be chords, distortion walls, or single-note melodies). In short, Mittens on Strings figured out how to write good songs that sound enough like each other to not be jarring next to each other, but different enough that you want to keep listening to each of them over and over.

The only problem with Let’s Go to Baba’s is that since it resurrects a style so often forgotten, the sound will come off as foreign and uncomfortable to some. “A Mountain of Light” is not something that is often heard, and it may be difficult to connect with at first blush. But those who are interested in uniquely creative music or psychedelic music should be very pleased to discover the surprising songwriting prowess of Mittens on Strings.

William Fitzsimmons has himself a downer little Christmas

I am incredibly picky when it comes to Christmas music. I’m averse to sap and schmaltz in general, so that lends itself to a general skepticism of all things Christmas-related, not just music. But when good Christmas things come around, I enjoy them as much (if not more than) everyone else. Charlie Brown Christmas, Sufjan’s Christmas EPs, and most recently Aaron Hale‘s HARK! EP are in heavy rotation around here.

It’s with subdued glee that I type this announcement: the almost-too-honest-and-realistic folk singer William Fitzsimmons has released a Christmas song. It’s not your typical Noel verse, in that it doesn’t have all the musical giveaways that scream THIS IS A CHRISTMAS SONG, SUCKER!!! But it is about Christmas (in its own depressing way), and it’s (as always) remarkably honest. Those of you with a general disdain for the holidays would do well to give a listen to William Fitzsimmons’ “Covered in Snow”; I think you’d enjoy it. What’s even better is that it’s paired with a gorgeous, pensive video shot (for no apparent reason) in Belgium. Merry Christmas.

"Kid stuff" that can be enjoyed by all

I am twenty-one years old, but the Gettin’ Funky with the Sugar Free Allstars DVD definitely made me feel twenty-one years young. And while it is meant for kids, I must admit that I highly enjoyed this live performance, recorded by the Oklahoman Sugar Free Allstars at the City Arts Center in Oklahoma City.

The Allstars consist of Chris “Boom!” Wiser on organ and vocals, and Rob “Dr. Rock” Martin on the drums. On the Hammond B-3, Chris plays bumping bass lines in addition to his soul and gospel influenced melodies. Dr. Rock also provides backup vocals, which are especially funny and effective in “Poppy and Meemaw,” a song about grandparents and their names. (Mine are Grammy and Pop-pop.) With Chris’ goofy vocals and funny questions, and Dr. Rock’s stoic one-word answers, the duo have great stage presence. But the kids probably just call this “fun,” and they’re right.

The DVD starts with “Banana Pudding,” which got me giggling (and hungry) right away. In this song and throughout the rest, Chris has the kids do something participatory. For example, in “Bathtub Boy,” there’s a lather up/scrub it down/rinse it off acting sequence that was, I mean seemed, fun. Between each of the seven songs, there’s a funny fast-forwarded interlude of Chris and Dr. Rock messing around in the arts center, and/or an interview with a group of kids. The kids are unintentionally hilarious, as kids often are. I re-watched a part where a little girl under two utters a nasally and very straight-faced “meow” in a ball pit.

Gettin’ Funky with the Sugar Free Allstars is great not only because kids would adore it, but also because the music Chris and Dr. Rock play is fun and danceable without being watered-down or annoying for adults to listen to. The lyrics are certainly ridiculous, as they should be, but these songs are still solid and funky.

The soundtrack is available as a free download with purchase of the DVD. The Sugar Free Allstars have also released albums for adults, all of which are available on their website.

Anna Madorsky enchants with Incantation

Brutal honesty moment from the critic: looks matter. If you’ve got a cool name, cool art, or a cool one-sheet, I’m going to be much more likely to listen to your album than not. It’s simply a feature of listening to so much music. If you’ve got a stack of thirty albums, all of which you’ve never heard of, you’re going to want to pick one somehow. And you’re going to want to pick one that’s good. So, instead of listening to one track from every CD, the visuals mediate. Because someone who puts lots of attention into their visuals is going to pay attention to the details of their music. Just a note for all the aspiring artists out there.

That’s inspired because Anna Madorsky hooked me with her art and then doubly hooked me with the genre name “dream-punk.” Liking dream-pop and punk, I thought I’d give “dream-punk” and listen and see what it sounds like. Even though Incantantion doesn’t exactly live up to the dream-punk title, it is a solid dream-pop release.

Jacob Magers' folk-inspired pop tunes mostly succeed.

I often wonder how artists title things. It’s become a little less of a mystery since I started writing my own albums, but I’m still boggled sometimes. Jacob Magers’ EP Pendulums is named after not only the least entertaining song on his EP, but the only one that relies on a gimmick.

See, Jacob Magers’ folk-inspired music is melodic, spacious, and engrossing; from the choir of “ah”s opening up “Point of Reference” to the trumpets on “Shanghai,” this EP is faultlessly entertaining. Except. Except. The title track “Pendulums” uses what sounds like an inverted and backwards loop of “Life in Technicolor” by Coldplay as its basis. It sounds weird, and it doesn’t contribute to the song at all. The song that follows after the goofy gimmick is solid, but it’s tarnished by the spectre of the odd loop. I have no clue why Magers chose to use the weird loop, or why he chose to use it as the title track, because there are wonders to behold elsewhere.

Jacob Magers is a supreme storyteller, and the best moments of this album are the most fully-realized stories. “Overboard and Down” is the last thoughts of a drowning sailor; “Smiling at Strangers” is the tragic tale of a woeful bet. “Shanghai,” the highlight of the EP, is the tale of two separated lovers longing to get back together.

The songwriting in “Shanghai” makes the tale pop with excellence, as Magers eschews stripped down folk antics for a more fully-realized sound, reminescent of Margot and the Nuclear So and Sos or maybe even I’m Wide Awake It’s Morning-era Bright Eyes. There are trumpets, violins,  twinkling electric guitar, bass guitar, and even a drum kit filling out the song. It sounds wonderful. It’s easily the best track here, as Magers sounds the most comfortable within the confines of the song. That confidence makes the melodies glow with a warmth and passion that are hinted at throughout the album. When Magers calls out “No, no, no!” and the violins pick up his sorrow with frantic bowing, it feels like the Decemberists but without the jagged edges.

In short, the best songs here are pop songs full of warmth and good storytelling. Magers’ voice and guitar produce melodies that are simply enjoyable. Other than that very odd track in the middle of the EP, Magers’ Pendulums is quite an exciting and well-realized piece. I hope to hear more from him.

Counter Intelligence posits some brainy, precise, emotive folk

Carl Hauck is a folksy singer who sounds like Andrew Bird if Andrew Bird knew how to have emotions. All of Bird’s work suffers from a disaffected whimsy; it seems that Bird takes bemusement from everything he’s singing and writing about, but does not actually engage with it. Thankfully, Carl Hauck takes the best parts of Bird’s amalgam, adds some of his own, and slathers emotion on it to create Counter Intelligence.

That’s not to say that this is a Damien Rice-esque wailer of an album (not that Damien Rice is bad, but it’s a fair bet that there will be wailing in a Rice album). Hauck’s voice and songwriting are both very pristine, distinct and precise. The lyrics that Hauck produces are all understandable due to his easy tone and clear pronunciation. This is great, because his lyrics are solid. Whether storytelling (“The Rebel”), reminiscing (“Schmaltz”), or speak-singing semi-stories (“Zhuangwho”), you can clearly discern what Hauck has to say.

What’s great is that even though his lyrics are solid (the anti-war “The Rebel” is probably the best anti-war diatribe I’ve heard this year), he doesn’t have to hang his hat on them. His music is just as clever, witty and talented as his tongue. He primarily plays the acoustic guitar, and it’s from that instrument and its melodies that much of the emotiveness of these tunes is drawn. But the acoustic guitar doesn’t bear the whole burden: piano (“The Rebel”) and dreamy electric guitar (“Herrick, You Devil”) make occasional appearances. The extra instruments work perfectly in the context of his folk songs; they fill in gaps instead of taking over songs.

“Herrick, You Devil” is especially enhanced by its extra instrumentation; the eerie feel that Hauck and a female back-up vocalist create is mimicked by the dreamy, cascading guitar. It creates an overall feel of impending dread that only ratchets up higher when they kick in heavy reverb on a piano and the vocals; it turns Hauck and his foil into ghostly apparitions, drawing the song into the transcendent. “Herrick, You Devil” is a highlight track that you probably won’t hum; the mood will just stick with you and the reverb will take up residence in your head.

There are other highlights as well: the oft-mentioned “The Rebel” is a ten minute epic that swoops and leaps through various styles in its story, but it all holds together in a memorable way; “…And Their Hair Looks Like Flocks” invokes the meandering guitar lines of Elijah Wyman. “They Come in Flocks”, which is the companion (at least in title) to the previously mentioned piece feels vaguely like a Nick Drake piece in mood.

Carl Hauck’s folk songs do have nods to many other artists, but the completed product is distinctly Carl Hauck. The album feels tight and cohesive, as there is no letdown between tracks. Each of the songs unfold their own treasures, and because each is a little different, the album travels at a consistent pace. The album is ultimately held together by his clear, distinct vocals, as it’s a real treat to hear them. I would recommend Counter Intelligence to anyone wanting to hear some precise, emotive folk.