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Month: January 2010

Announcement: Mason Daring is awesome

For a man who hasn’t recorded an album in 30 years, Mason Daring’s self-titled release is remarkable. The album sounds as if he spent all that time honing his craft. I am extremely impressed with how well it is put together, and how Mason Daring (I just have to say his full name again; it’s such a cool name) manages to make his “oldies”-style-Americana music sound current. It might sound cheesy, but this album feels timeless. If I had to equate it to an object, Mason Daring would be a well-worn jean jacket picked up from a thrift store that fits exactly right, worn on brisk, sunny afternoons.

Throughout this album, Daring fuses many different music styles together in a way that’s not forced but natural and gentle. Most songs have elements of folk, pop, and country, but many sound like revamped jazz standards and others have lush instrumentation. Think Roy Orbison meeting Johnny Cash in New Orleans while listening to Beatles for Sale in the 1970s when The Eagles were really big. But even that loaded analogy doesn’t exactly do Daring justice.

I could easily write in depth about each song, but I’ll just pick out my favorites in the hopes of sparking more interest in this album. “Too Much” is one of the jazziest on Mason Daring, and with its own whimsical charm, I could see this song being played during a montage in a romantic comedy of a couple having a nice date. This actually makes sense, though, when you know that Daring has extensive film scoring experience. And the acoustic ballad “Lightship” is nothing short of beautiful, with gorgeous female harmonies and orchestra strings and brass. The liner notes allude to its special nature: “To be truthful, [‘Lightship’] is the reason I did the entire CD – I simply wanted this song to see the light of day.” And with good reason – it’s perfectly lovely.

“You Can’t Get To Heaven From Here” is a charismatic country-esque tune with a great organ part, a very catchy chorus, and a complementary horn section. Two other gems are “Only For You,” which sounds reminiscent of “When I’m 64” and “Martha My Dear,” and the twangy, uptempo, rollicking and rolling “People Are Talking.”

But I must reinforce that all of this album is truly great, and I can say from experience that it still sounds great when listened to on repeat over and over. I strongly recommend checking out Mason Daring.

Imperial China! Phosphenes! I Have Seen The Light!

Phosphenes by DC’s Imperial China just might be the next big thing! I cannot stop listening to this album! It comes out Valentine’s Day, 2010, as a split release between DC labels Sockets Records and Ruffian Records.

On first listen, I hear this kick-ass, big beat, Battles-type stuff woven through tight, Gang of Four-type post-punk. I am pleased with the release’s total lack of DC-ness (you know… discordant guitars and super-slick, phrase-perfect drumming). The only ring of DC is track three, “Bananamite,” which sounds like a Regulator Watts or Hoover dub jam. Except, this song takes a more Animal Collective, swirly direction toward the hypnotic and repetitive… which serves the album well.

Let me stress that the album is not all instrumental. I would say Imperial China’s vocals sound like Richard Thompson singing for PIL (which – totally an aside – takes me back to my original what if/where is… the band that sounds like Curtis Mayfield singing for Led Zeppelin?).

IC’s artiness is not pretentious. The production of the album has something to do with that. It sounds like a well-mixed, live performance… like a band doing exactly what they do. Imperial China could be huge really soon! They are making intense music, simply, with just three members. Nothing sounds forced; it sounds like they’re having fun. That’s all of the battle!

The drums are smart, block-rockin’, dancey without being disco. The electronics are well-chosen, and very ear-pleasing… intelligent ambiance. The bass is big-bottom dub-dance pump-thump. The guitar lines are based in Metal yet not all slathered in high-gain blubber. The guitars are also quite indie/punk not unlike Minutemen or something from, say, “A Place Called Today” by Hurl. Sorry to use so many “sounds likes” in this review, but Phosphenes took me to a good place!

The band:
RIYL: Gang Of Four, June of ’44, Tortoise, Nice Nice, Trans Am —Gary Lee Barrett

Moruza loses her personality in Regina Spektor's

It’s really hard for me to judge Moruza objectively. Moruza (which is named after its primary songwriter, Leslie Moruza Dripps) plays quirky, upbeat piano songs that have equal parts pop glee and serious contemplation. The fact that both moods often occur in the same song, and that Moruza has a penchant for both strings and nonsense syllables makes it nigh on impossible to not compare Moruza to Regina Spektor and judge it lacking.

It’s really kind of annoying, because I swore I was not going to compare the two. But the more I listen to Moruza’s self-titled album, the less I can stop myself. “Bad Man” has quirky piano rhythms similar to Spektor. “If It’s You” has the minor/major back-and-forth that makes me think strongly of the world’s most huggable Russian.

It’s not that these songs are bad; it’s hard to imitate Spektor. And Moruza takes great steps to differentiate herself; the band here is composed of a double bassist, a drummer and a violinist. This album really should be closer to a jazzy experience than it is, as the only heavily jazz track in the almost-not-canonical extra point “Wierd Little Person.”  The back half of this album is less like Spektor and more of her own personality, which is a dainty Americana sound. But by the time I get to  “Richmond” (song ten), the comparisons are entrenched, and it’s hard to separate out expectations from realities.

Even by this point in the review it’s hard to shake the spectre of Spektor. But here it is: Leslie Moruza Dripps has a solid alto voice and a solid command of songwriting. About half her songs are in a poppy idiom, which is not where her strength lies. The back half of this album, which consists more of Americana and jazz tracks, feels much more comfortable and unique to Moruza. The use of strings throughout is a highlight.”Little Bird” and “Richmond” are the standout tracks here, as they establish a unique voice in the folk world. I would like to see her lean more in this direction on her next album, as the more folk-and-jazz-tinged tracks just work better.

Moruza put together a solid debut effort with their self-titled release. I think that with more experience and more songwriting, this will become a very interesting band. Right now, this is a RIYL Regina Spektor-style piano pop.

ZUU falls a bit short with the serious tunes

Making “serious music” is always kind of a gamble. When you’re making standard pop music, you can pretty much guarantee that at the very least, drunk guys at the bar are going to think you’re freakin’ awesome and buy a CD. But when you’re making a statement and causing people to think about your music, dudebro is actually disinclined to like your music. You need real fans, or you need leathery skin to keep doing it in the face of animosity.

I’m not sure which side of the fence ZUU falls on, but they fall somewhere.Everywhere is  serious music in the vein of OK Computer, Bloc Party’s Intimacy, and the like. There’s few hooks to hang your ears on, and there’s enough foggy mood and atmosphere to make Seattle jealous. ZUU’s chops are on display, and they’re writing songs that are powerful.

The problem is that I have no idea what they’re trying to say. While the mood is consistent throughout, there are few to no clues as to the meaning of the album. The title is unhelpful, the art is pretty but not revealing, and the lyrics don’t seem to have any overt theme tying them together. I could be missing something on the lyrical front, but if you have to try that hard to even glean the slightest hint of what’s going on, that’s a problem.

So, scratching the album as a whole (which is unfortunate, because I really think they’re trying to say something), the songs individually are pretty solid. Their best work comes when the bass player dominates the song and the guitarist does atmospheric work, a la the Edge. “Sigh,” “Only One” and “Resolve” are the tracks that really shine, as they flaunt their talents (interlocking guitar parts, smooth vocals, rhythm, cohesiveness of songwriting). When the guitars kick it into distortion (“Wasted Today,” “Loaded”), a lot of the songwriting chemistry is covered up. The heavier songs, while not bad, are just not impressive, because much of the draw of ZUU is lost.

There’s a slight psychedelic edge to these songs, as well as a slight African bent because of the percussion choices. But it’s not enough to make a huge difference on the overall feel of the album, which lands somewhere between a piano-less The National and a less-guitar-happy Radiohead. “Weaning Nettles” and “Only One” are the best tracks here, and worth a look even if you don’t do the whole album.

ZUU has significant chops and great songwriting skills. They just didn’t tie the whole package together right this time. I think that they can definitely accomplish a project of major magnitude if they set out to do so. If that’s not their goal, then I’m a little lost. Recommended for major fans of serious music, but the world at large should wait for ZUU’s next offering.

Seven's dance-rock fits in with the best of the genre

I’ve had a spate of number bands recently. I reviewed TiLT 360 the other day, I recently reviewed Black Heart Procession’s Six, and now I’ve got a double dose in reviewing The Fifth by Seven. I’m not really sure what causes people to name their band a number, but it seems to have no effect whatsoever on their music, as all of these bands are great at what they do.

Seven’s dark, danceable rock would have been lumped in with Killers, the Bravery and Interpol, had they erupted around the turn of the century. If Hot Fuss-era Killers had added a female singer and swung more toward the “Jenny Was a Friend of Mine” side of than the “All These Things That I’ve Done” side, they would have become Seven.  The rattling high-hat, synths,  upbeat tempos and epic melodies are all there.

Vocalist Annette Gil has a low voice for a girl, and it fits the sound perfectly. Her voice draws power from the low, gritty guitars that comprise most of the backdrop of this album. It draws contrast and tension from the high synths that often juxtapose with the guitars. That give and take is what forms the basis of almost all Seven songs. And, from top to bottom, that’s a great thing.

From the stomping anthem “Dance Dance Dance” to the mid-tempo “Blackburn” to the punked-out “Sickleave,” Seven blazes through thirteen songs without ever letting the energy drop. There are guitar-driven tracks like rocker “Peace and Lovin,” so-much-synth-it-might-be-the-eighties tracks like “No Ambition” and even unexplainable tracks like “Elements,” which starts off like a spaghetti western and ends up being an oddball pop song.

This album is a must-hear for people who love synth-driven rock with a dance bent and anthemic tendencies. There’s a lot of that going around these days, but Seven’s carved out a niche and written songs that stick, even in a genre full of excellent songwriters. I

TiLT 360 does aggressive modern rock right

I hate Nickelback. But I don’t hate them because of their music. They have every right to be watered-down grunge or roughed-up pop (whichever you prefer). It’s that they legitimately think they are hardcore. It’s obvious to anyone who’s actually heard a rock band that Nickelback is not hardcore, but Nickelback takes themselves as seriously as Live, and they aren’t writing songs anywhere near as good as “Lightning Crashes” to back it up. The depressing thing is that millions of people buy it (literally and metaphorically). They, obviously, have never heard a real rock band, and especially not TiLT 360 or their album Day 11.

Annoying capitalization aside, TiLT 360 is everything that is good and right about modern rock. I’ve been reviewing a lot of modern rock recently (I swear I’m not going to the dark side), but this needs to be the last one so that I can go out on a high note. TiLT 360 plays heavy, dark rock and roll with great melodies, interesting rhythms, and varied vocals. There’s screaming, singing and growling on this album, and each is done with taste and talent. The guitars play in skull-crushing mode just as often as they do in a more pop-oriented mellow style (usually in verses). The drummer knows how to thrash without going overboard. Even the bassist contributes, intertwining his bass lines with the guitarwork in the quiet sections. It’ll never be confused for a Bush album (the band lets its metal roots shine through), but I would say it’s worthy to be considered in the same category as Chevelle and RED in  “good modern rock and roll.”

Highlights include the bass-heavy riff-metal of “Point Blank,” the thoroughly aggressive “It Grows,” and the moody tension of standout track “Last String.” The only real lowlight is a poor vocal performance on the title track and opener “Day 11.” If that’s dropped out of the mix, this ten-song album is a pretty stout modern rock offering. If you’re a fan of radio-style modern rock but want something a little heavier to go with it, you should definitely check out Day 11 by TiLT 360.

Clean but formula release from The City and Skyway

As far as experienced lineups go, The City and Skyway seems to have hit the jackpot. Band members have previously played in Dashboard Confessional, Lifetime, Limbeck, The Promise Ring, The Benjamins, and others.

And yet, as the star power doesn’t exactly add up on Everything Looks Worse in Black and White. There are certainly many elements that could create a great album – talented and experienced musicians, tight production and a cohesive sound. But despite having all of these flavorsome ingredients, the result still doesn’t taste quite right. Some of this can be chalked up to the fact that Everything Looks Worse in Black and White is the group’s debut album. With a little more spice thrown into the cooking pot next time, The City and Skyway could really create a stronger release.

The main issue in this album is that while the songs are very consistent, they are so much so that they tend to run together, making it somewhat difficult to distinguish one from another. All, very generally speaking, are electric guitar-driven pop-punk-rock with easy harmonies and predictable choruses that seem to run at extremely similar tempos. Each song on Everything Looks Worse in Black and White could actually sound better on its own instead of being played one after the other as an entire album. This, however, shows how far The City and Skyway could go with their next release.

There is, nonetheless, a lot of good to be heard, too. Drummer Ryan Joyce has some really interesting and unique fills, the harmonies are nicely executed (even if they are kind of conventional), and lead singer Mitch Lyon has the perfect voice for The City and Skyway’s style. If the group takes a few more songwriting risks with their next release, the powerful lineup could really be used to its full potential.

Knife the Symphony revive the punk aesthetic, musically and otherwise

I was at an Oklahoma City Thunder game yesterday, and “Blitzkrieg Bop” came on over the PA in the same loop as fragments of rap songs, “Jump Around” by House of Pain and various songs mostly known as Jock Jams. While the Ramones have suffered far worse indignities in terms of where they’ve been played, it still made me sad. The Ramones were the sound of rebellion at their time. Parents smashed their kids’ Ramones vinyls. There’s nothing rebellious about the Oklahoma City Thunder (sorry, KD). I swung a little bit more toward the “Punk is dead” argument that I hate (because that argument is usually a cop-out).

But then I heard Knife the Symphony’s Dead Tongues, and I feel much better about the state of rebellious music. Knife the Symphony plays loud, dissonant, unconventional rock music that has the tempos of punk, but the chords and artistic aesthetic of post-hardcore. Except in the hypnotic “Sold Out (In an Empty Room),” the vocalist doesn’t bother with melody; he just screams when he feels like it. It’s hardly rhythmic, and the lyrics are almost entirely unintelligible. If I played this for almost anyone who likes the radio, they would hate it.

And I’m sure that pleases Knife the Symphony. Their songs ooze punk/DIY attitude, from the album art (a commissioned painting, it appears) to the complicated inner casing and artwork to the note that their version of  “Fallout”  by Hornet is only available on the vinyl of this album. The fact that there is a vinyl of this album is awesome. The fact that Hornet, as far as I can tell, is a local band from Kalamazoo, Michigan, makes their choice of cover even more awesome. To top it all off, their myspace tag line is “you’re going to need earplugs.” This is punk rock.

Knife the Symphony‘s Dead Tongues features great songs, like the blistering “Without Parallels” and the dissonant “At the Races.” And the songs are the draw, because without great songs, all this punk attitude is pointless. Knife the Symphony is talented, and that’s not to be overlooked in all this. But it’s their aesthetic that so pleases me. Dead Tongues is definitely one of the most important things I’ve heard in a long time. The punk aesthetic is alive, and Knife the Symphony knows it. Keep at it.

Andy Davis successfully appeals to many listeners with piano

Andy DavisNew History EP falls neatly into the mature pop genre. Davis’ clear, soulful tenor fits neatly into the constraints of the genre, and his paino-led songwriting does similarly. It’s no knock to the quality of the EP; that’s just the way it is. If you like Mraz, the Fray, John Mayer, even Michael Buble, you’ll love Andy Davis.

Opener “That’s Where My Head Is” provides a twinge of country to the epic sweep of his piano and vocal melodies through harmonica and organ. The song shows that Davis knows how to write songs to best dramatic effect, and that he can make hits if he keeps writing long enough with the right breaks. “New History” is an upbeat version of the same theme, played on a keyboard instead of a true piano. The chorus breaks into an unusual mood, but it’s definitely enjoyable. “Hard to Believe” is a “Fix You”-esque ballad where Davis puts his full emotional scope on display. It’s easily the best overall track on the EP, and it will certainly find placement on future mixtapes.

The most intriguing track of the five-song EP, however, is “Passing Trains.” Davis abandons well-worn chords and sounds to produce a more free-flowing style, creating a distinct mood. The song sticks out on the EP, which is otherwise very standard songs that are easily palatable radio songs (again, not a dig; that’s what it is). The heavily atmospheric mood that’s created through percussion, reverb, unusual instruments and wordless vocals is incredibly interesting and merits repeated listens. I listened to it most out of all the tracks.

Andy Davis’ New History EP is a great collection of songs. For those who love “I’m Yours,” all songs but track two will pique your interest. If you like unusual and progressive songwriting, “Passing Trains” will give you pause. To appeal to such disparate audiences on the same short EP is impressive. If Davis finds a way to meld the two approaches, he will be on to something fantastic.

Bluskreen makes beautiful, complicated downtempo music

Bluskreen’s Mockup is exactly what I like to see from a sophomore album: an album that builds off the established sound of the first release without abandoning the trademarks that made the debut so good.  The sounds in Mockup expand on the cinematic downtempo techno of debut Selections by incorporating a lot more analog sounds into the songwriting mix this time.

Tony Lannutti certainly gave himself space to work; Mockup compiles over an hour of music on seventeen tracks. The fact that every minute of these songs is instrumental is the greatest strength and worst weakness of the album. Its chosen genre (cinematic downtempo, also known as the music that accompanies technological thrillers of the movie or tv persuasion) makes it easy for those without long attention spans to file this in “background music” and forget it. That would be doing themselves a disservice, as the melodicism and fine-tuned construction of this album make it a treasure trove of beautiful moments.

Since pop songwriting structure is abandoned, Lannutti is free to experiment with melodies, rhythms and buildups at his own pace. There is no governing structure to any Bluskreen song except the one that Lannutti decides upon; this means that every song is a surprise. Songs take abrupt turns, unexpected instruments appear, and subtle moods are tracked and morphed. Centerpiece “The Horse’s Mouth” is seven minutes of charging synths accompanied by gentle blips and snare-heavy percussion. It leads into “Lightning Bug,” which is based out of a melodic wash of synths. The tension-filled “Immunity” is built on a fragment of a guitar line. The remorseful “In Due Time” features found sound and a percussion instrument that sounds like a vibraphone.

This album is over an hour long, and it hides gold in every track. There is not a clunker on this album, and that’s really difficult to say about any album with seventeen tracks, much less an instrumental one. Even more impressive is that the album doesn’t feel repetitive at all. Different sounds, rhythms, tempos and moods populate each one, making the album a long, satisfying journey. It’s a journey that needs to be focused on and listened to as a piece of art, and not as background music. But for those willing to pour some tea, sit back, and listen intently, there’s an exciting hour and change waiting for you in Bluskreen’s Mockup.