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Month: March 2010

Blag'ard's urgent garage rock kicks it into high gear

There’ s nothing “indie” about Blag’ard‘s gritty, two-man garage rock other than the band’s unsigned (and therefore “independent”) status. These ten songs don’t spend time on atmospherics, mood or arrangements; they get straight to the rock’n’roll. This aesthetic gives the best songs on Mach II an urgency that is rare in any sort of rock’n’roll, much less the bare-bones two-man variety.

Indie-rock vet Joe Taylor (ex-Capsize 7) holds down the guitars and vocals, while newcomer Adam Brinson cranks out the drumming in this duo. The majority of the urgency comes from Taylor’s guitar work. Taylor rarely leaves a moment without guitar in it; while the lines can be angular at times, they never pause.  By never letting up, Taylor covers the roles of bassist, rhythm guitarist and lead guitarist. His buzzing guitar sound is reminiscent of The White Stripes’ early guitar work, as the guitar work is definitely distorted but not so much so that you can’t hear what’s going on.

Brinson’s drumming fills out the sound in a very Meg White-esque way, contributing simple but appropriate drumming. Brinson does exercise more chops than White, but it’s a similar style.  Brinson’s not showing off his drum skills, and it fits the sound well. He shows some syncopated work on “Snowball” and makes a solid drum line out of a repeated fill on “Harmony,” but most of the tunes use high hat, snare and kick drum in a consistent and insistent manner to match the propulsive qualities of Taylor’s songwriting.

When Taylor gets comfortably vocally in a song, it becomes a highlight. The lighter feel of “Snowball” allows Taylor to sing instead of snarling, and the melody one of the more memorable. Album standout is “RCO,” which scales back the intensity a bit to feature a sinister vibe, eerie backup vocals and a haunting chorus.  “Life in Reverse” is the best of the straight-up rock tracks that they have here, as Taylor turns in a good vocal performance. The tight opening riff in “Ophelia” is also worth noting, as it steals the show from the rest of the song (even the whistling!).

The garage-rock of Mach II is messy, urgent, insistent, imperfect, and all rock. There’s no question as to what Blag’ard set out to do with this release, and they knock it out of the ballpark. If you like gritty, raw, untainted rock’n’roll straight outta the garage/Detroit, then Blag’ard is in your corner.

The Points North create unique folk from a myriad of influences and styles

thepointsnorthOne of my best friends and I are huge folk fans. We share some of the same loves (Josh Ritter, Simon and Garfunkel, Iron and Wine), but we diverge pretty hard at one point: he’s a big fan of the British folk sound, and I’m a big fan of the American folk sound. The British folk sound has a very open sound: capturing the sound of rolling hills on the English countryside, the music often abounds with flutes, mandolin, and other optimistic sounds. American folk has a much less optimistic air about it; Dylan’s strum-heavy protest songs and Simon and Garfunkel’s world-weary pop/folk tunes set the stage for the depressing world that American folk resides in.

The Points North take a distinctly British approach to folk, although they hail from Boston. Accordion, flute, delicately fingerpicked guitar, piano, mandolin and more permeate the sound, creating a rollicking sound. But even though these songs are charming, melodic, and sunny, they never become less weighty. Page France was one of the only other bands I know of that was able to capture the balance between giddy music and serious content. And The Points North don’t geek out on a Michael Nau-esque level; they’re much more tempered than that. Stately, as the Brits might say.

If Sufjan Stevens were a little more obsessed with flute, he could have written “Cape Tryon”; the background vocals and general feel of the song would have fit perfectly on Illinoise! If the Low Anthem cracked a smile every now and then, they would be happy to claim the elegaic accordion intro of “I Awoke a Child.” If Nick Drake had found friends to play with him, he could have written half these songs, from the peculiar picking rhythm of “Ever Bright White” to the carefree feel of “Tires & the Pavement.” There are elements of Nickel Creek’s joyful pop (minus the bluegrass), and Novi Split’s goofy swooping musical instruments.

Although I’ve spent most of this album saying who the Points North sound like, that’s not to their discredit. This isn’t an album that causes me to wince every time I hear a musical familiarity. On the other hand, these references (intentional or otherwise) cause excitement and increase enjoyment. The sound isn’t as intimate as my favorite folk bands, due to the myriad of sounds going on, but that’s not what The Points North were shooting for.

The Points North’s I Saw Across the Sound is a unique release, written and recorded with clarity of idea. It’s a very distinctive brand of folk that draws off all the aforementioned bands, but copies none of them. Quite enjoyable and talented.

Suavity's Mouthpiece turns a big band into a genre-spanning eclectic pop experience

Suavity's MouthpieceSometimes “experimental” is code for “lazy reviewer,” especially if the band has some talent but uses it in annoying ways. Just put that label on it, and there’s a bunch of people who will check it out simply because it has that title. But in the case of Suavity’s Mouthpiece, there’s really no other way to describe the music succinctly other than “experimental.” For instance, genres that get play here include: big band swing, industrial, elevator music, jazz, modern acoustic pop, ’50s-style pop (complete with period oversung vocals), and funk. Note that traditional words like “rock” and “indie” are completely absent from that list.

So, it’s a bit of a challenge to describe The Passion of Suavity’s Mouthpiece. The most ubiquitous piece of the sound is the big band, which appears in one way or another on almost every track. I don’t know if it’s a real live band or a digital recreation, but it sounds great, either way. The swing rhythms of the big band lend the underlying rhythms to every song, whether that rhythm is picked up by a Spanish acoustic guitar (“I’m Sick of Your Tedious Girlfriend”) a fifties-styled goofy pop song (“Looks, Looks, Looks”), or a dreamy ’50s pop ballad (“The Brains of Flies”).

Then, right when it seems that Suavity’s Mouthpiece has taken a big band and forced it into genres it’s not supposed to be in and forced it to work, Justin Trafford (born Justin Antoszewski, formerly performing as Sinclair McRickson) hangs a right at “Your Least Favorite Song.” The rest of the songs are Spanish guitar ballads with big band and electronica contributions. Once you get used to the abrupt changes in style that compose the style of Suavity’s Mouthpiece, even these seemingly disjointed songs sound somewhat cohesive.

I’m not saying that these are normal, by any means. Trafford sings, “I don’t think you understand how different I really am” in “Matinee,” and I don’t think I do. Because all of this experimentation doesn’t come about because of amateurishness or even as a cover for poor talent. Trafford has a great voice that he molds into several different sounds to fit the genres he travels through. When he lets the acting go and just sings, it’s remarkably calm, composed, and confident. Trafford could be making normal pop and getting really successful doing it; he has the voice, the songwriting skill, and the charisma to do it. But he prefers making the incredibly lucid and experimental pop of Suavity’s Mouthpiece.

This is an incredibly well-realized release. It’s recorded beautifully, written carefully, and performed with glee. It’s also performed in genres, idioms and styles that have been largely abandoned by modern pop music. That will make it challenging for some people to get into, but anyone who enjoys stuff outside the norm will find a treasure trove of sounds, rhythms and moods in The Passion of Suavity’s Mouthpiece. Interested parties can download it here.

500 Miles to Memphis' inspired country/punk gets even more diverse

500 Miles to Memphis500 Miles to Memphis‘ last album Sunshine in a Shot Glass was a wild country-punk album dedicated to what seemed to be the nastiest break-up ever. Lead singer Ryan Malott, in his attempts to improve in all aspects upon the last album, went out and had another friggin’ breakup (or, God forbid, it’s the same breakup still happening) that seems even more brutal than the last. Thus, we have We’ve Built Up to NOTHING, which is one of the only titles I’ve ever seen that manages to yell.

I feel straight-up awful for Ryan Malott if these tunes are all autobiographical, but I’m thankful that he’s so good at getting his angst down on tape. If the first one was a great break-up album, this is an epic breakup album. Where Sunshine in a Shot Glass reveled in the country/punk dichotomy, We’ve Built Up to NOTHING sees it as a fact of life and gets on with writing great songs. This allows the band to expand its sound out in great ways, like the Avett Brothers-esque piano-country-punk of “Let it Go,” instrumental interludes “…” and “dejas,” the nine-minute-long kiss-off “Everybody Needs an Enemy,” and the 3-minutes-exactly adrenaline blast that is “Shots.” There are marching bands, strings, organs, pianos, banjos, and more. The title track closes out the album with a tuba-led strings and brass orchestra, and Malott pulls off the guitar-less song with such slick expertise you’d think he’s been doing it forever.

Some parts he has been doing forever. There are two-steppin’ country-punk songs like the frantic “It’s Alright” and “East Texas Angel” that have nothing distinctive in them but Malott’s trademark vocals, solid melodies, and a punk strum. And that’s enough to turn out a great song all on its own. But it’s experiments like the relatively mellow, heart-rending “You Loved Me Once” and the organ-soaked romance of “Moonlight” have little to do with punk and more to do with emotion-tugging country and pop which make this album so infectious.

This isn’t just a rage-tastic break-up middle finger in musical form. This is a thoughtful evaluation of all the emotions that come along with a breakup, as filtered through Ryan Malott’s singer/songwriter idiom. As a result, the tempos, styles and sounds of the album are incredibly varied. I mean,  “Moonlight” could be on country radio right now and no one would know that 500 Miles to Memphis is mostly a punk band. And that’s awesome.

If you’ve gotten your heart broken, We’ve Built Up to NOTHING is a therapy session and a half. If you like country-punk, these guys are the reigning kings. If you like adrenaline-fueled punk albums, you’ll still like this album. And, amazingly, if you like hot country, you’ll find treats for your ears here. 500 Miles to Memphis has pushed their sound out to new areas and conquered them thoroughly. An amazing release.

P.S. Someone love Ryan Malott. Please.

tHE POLES' metal/rock has the soul of an indie-rock band

Yesterday I praised Self-evident for perfectly capturing indie-rock. Labelmates tHE POLES have a similar mindset, although they swing out to further extremes than Self-evident does. tHE POLES’ Twelve Winds sounds like a metal band with the soul of an indie-rock band.

If you play Self-evident right into tHE POLES, it works perfectly. Both bands have a middle-of-the-road stance when it comes to mood and volume. Neither band dedicates the majority of their time on one extreme or the other, preferring to play in the middle ground. tHE POLES, though, have a decidedly more dissonant idea of where the middle is. It’s still not chugga chugga very often, but “We Dine in White” features a Tool-esque bass riff, pressing drums, and dissonant rhythm guitar in addition to the calm, melodic guitar work on top of it all. It is this dynamic that tHE POLES play with the entire album; the tension between gritty sounds and pretty ones. And while there is rhythmic interplay here, it’s not nearly as pronounced as on the Self-evident’s Endings. That’ not what they were going for.

No, this album is all about mood, from the rough-throated vocals to the clanging rhythm guitars to the weird keys that come in at places. Especially toward the end of the album, tHE POLES get into a groove, cranking out several tunes in a row that ebb and flow at an incredibly natural pace. These songs feel like they already existed and were simply captured out of the air by the band, such is the ease with which they seem played and recorded. From the coming-out-of-the-bunker weariness of “Night Has a Smile” to the lost-in-the-woods paranoia of “Gasoline” through to starts-at-nothing-ends-at-thrashing build of “Fire in the Woods” and even on further, tHE POLES have constructed intense tunes that thrash your psyche more than your ears.

This is less likely to stay in my permanent rotation because it does ratchet up toward the heavier end of things, and it’s a rare day that I dial up a heavy album for the heck of it. But if I had to listen to heavy music, this is where I’d want it to be at. These songs are occasionally heavy, but thoughtfully so. They more often fall in that in-between space where it’s so hard to stand out. And tHE POLES stand out in that space, which is a testament to their songwriting skills. Definitely an album to check out for fans of MeWithoutYou, Explosions in the Sky, Isis, and other metal/rock that cares more about mood than ripping your face off (although it does enjoy the face-melting once it gets there).

Wallscenery Demos melds beats, indie, pop and folk into an excellent whole

Wallscenery DemosWallscenery DemosCheck This! is exactly the type of release that I love covering in Independent Clauses. James Hicken,  the mastermind behind Wallscenery Demos, is a gifted songwriter who combines disparate genres and seemingly incoherent elements into one seamless album. Hicken’s reach extends from rap to indie dance to Beach Boys-esque pop to modern folk, and yet the songs never sound kitschy or amateur.

The album plays out not as individual songs, but a full album.  This is encouraged by Hicken’s prominent use of interludes, which range from twelve to fifty-five seconds. A recording of rain, a voice sample clipped from an advertisement and crowds cheering are just some of the elements he uses to segue one song to the next. And the segues are important, because of the aforementioned genre span that Hicken creates. Folk guitar-led gem “I’m Not Around” would butt up against the low-end thump of the downtempo, Portishead-esque piece “Ain’t Got Nuthin to Say” unless the low-fi buzz of “[one of these days one]” wasn’t a transition.  Similarly, the stuttering beats of “Watch Your Back” would overrun the gloriously sedate “My Highest Regards” if the messy dissolution of “[one of these days two]” didn’t intervene.

The best part about Check This! is that there’s not a quality distinction between Hicken’s various genre choices. He makes everything flow perfectly; he knows when to combine genres, and when to leave well enough alone. “My Highest Regards” is a straight-up melancholy indie-pop song, and it is great. Adding anything else to it would have made it kitschy. Hicken’s solid decisions as a songwriter and incredibly strong control of mood make this album into the great piece of music that it is.

There are some problems; Hicken’s voice is often the weak point in his music. He knows it; he often covers his voice in reverb or distortion, drops it low in the mix, and even sings about it. It’s not the fault of his songwriting skill: the compositions are solid, and the vocal parts he writes for himself are good. It’s just that his voice is often unsuited to pull off the things that his brain creates. This is unfortunate, as several songs here are not as good as they could be simply because of a poor vocal performance. But at points he shows that he knows how to use his voice to his advantage, as “My Highest Regards” is excellent because of the way his vocals work within the music.

Check This! is an incredibly interesting album. It plays like a downtempo indie-rock band (like Pedro the Lion) collaborating with a downtempo producer (like Danger Mouse or Portishead), guesting the indie-fied pop skills of MGMT. There’s enough energy to keep the album from dragging, but the thing revels in being morose. And because Hicken doesn’t try to hide who he is behind slick studio production, Check This! becomes a unique and interesting album that could not have been made by anyone else. I sincerely hope that Hicken keeps writing under the Wallscenery Demos name, or finds a collaborative foil or two to enhance his songwriting prowess with vocal expertise. Either way, there’s gonna be a lot more interesting music from James Hicken, because his songwriting vision is unique.