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Month: April 2015

Yeesh’s complex pastiche results in creative, inventive rock

yeesh

Yeesh‘s No Problem is the fantastic result of 40 years of rock experimentation. If you scour through the impressive sonic melange of tracks like “Slip,” “Linda Lee,” and “Genesis Pt. 1,” you’ll find traces of (deep breath) Black Flag, the Minutemen, various grunge howlers, Blur, Modest Mouse, The Strokes, The Vaccines, The Pixies, Hot Water Music, The Menzingers, countless unnamed punk bands, and post-rock bands that emphasize the rock. What’s not included might be easier to list than what is. (No reggae or folk, for example.)

This level of sonic re-appropriation and pastiche makes it difficult to review; each song is its own distinct head trip. “Friends/Shadows” is the most frantic Menzingers song never recorded, with a math-rock breakdown for the heck of it. “Different Light” is a mid-tempo singalong made unusual by atypical reverb settings on the guitar; the propulsive “Watch Yr Step” lives on the boundary of punk and post-hardcore. “Zakk Radburn Teenage Detective” starts out with chiming guitars reminiscent of early ’00s indie-pop, then layers the most brutal guitar noise of the entire album on top of it. They never resolve the tension there, instead using it to power some start/stop acrobatics.

Listening to all of No Problem is a mind-bending experience. Yeesh doesn’t see any contradiction in having soaring guitar lines compete with gnarly low-end rhythm guitar (closer “Shock” most prominently, but it’s everywhere); they don’t see any problem in mixing poppy melodies, brute force guitars, polyrhythmic rhythm section, and artistic guitar effects. This kitchen sink approach to songwriting results in something truly inventive and creative: a set of ten songs that kept me guessing the entire time. If you think that complex arrangements can and should be set in the service of pummeling eardrums, No Problem may be high on your year-end list.

March MP3s: On the Fly

Here’s a batch of MP3s that I have been long remiss in posting. Also, happy Good Friday to you.

On the Fly

1. “A Warning of Sorts” – CHIRPING. Are we ever done with slick, well-produced, cheery indie-rock from Swedes? No, never. Put on your dancing shoes.

2. “Number One” – The Sideshow Tragedy. Did The Black Keys ever sound sinister? The Sideshow Tragedy has honed the blues-rock guitar/drums duo to a fine point here, packing in energy, melodies, dynamics, and (yes) even some sinister vocal vibes. Whoever can’t get behind a good tambourine needs to get this tune in front of them.

3. “Retro Bastard (KKBB Remix)” – Blood Sport. Kasey Keller Big Band turns out a remix of a song I’ve never heard, resulting in a complex pastiche of zooming digital sounds, heavy bass lines, complex drumming, and hollered vocals. Somehow, it turns into a herky-jerky dance tune, the sort of thing that mid-to-late ’00s dance-rock bands would have jonesed after. Intricate yet danceable, Artsy yet poppy? Turn that up.

4. “Sovereign Gore” – Casual Threats. Jamming post-hardcore’s dissonant aggression, post-punk’s wiry experimentation, and Interpol-esque dour melodies into one track is a tall order, but Casual Threats pull it off with confident aplomb.

5. “Unknown” – Lylit. If you have a way with a “whoa-oh,” you’re going to do well in today’s pop scene. Having an infectious groove that rides the line between dramatic and decidedly happy helps too.

6. “Lost is Found” – Perdido Key. In an age of no-nuance EDM, it’s refreshing to hear a club-ready tune with some atmosphere and restraint. It’s no surprise that it hearkens back to the ’90s–but not too much–to get that feel.

7. “Caves” – Sea Bed. Bouncy, rubbery keys give this dance tune a cool underwater feel, in addition to the boots’n’cats techno beat. (What up ’90s! Two in a row!) The vocal melody is infectious as well. This is way cool.

8. “He’s Heating Up” – Homeshake. So, this comes from an album that’s celebrating ’90s NBA basketball, which is a fantastic idea. Homeshake’s homage sounds like some unique alternate-universe version of Prince: feathery falsetto, vaguely funky mood, and affected sense of drama.

9. “Time For a New School of Alchemy” – ticktock. Glitchy electro had an idiosyncratic sort of beauty to it. This track harnesses bleeps, burbles, and chopped up sounds in the service of traditionally beautiful work that falls somewhere between ’80s synth-pop and modern bedroom chillwave.

10. “Mother of Maladies” – Marrow. I don’t know what it is about keyboards that can ground a funky song so well, but the wurlitzer gives this churning, whirling indie-rock piece a bit of solidity.

11. “Great Divide” – Humming House. Having great “whoa-ohs” helps in folk-pop too, as Humming House knows. Vocals reminiscent of The Avetts’ power this energetic, enthusiastic gem.

12. “When I Rise” – Diamondwolf. Percussion is real important in alt-country, and the stomp-clap drumming makes the mood here. The zinging pedal steel and heavy acoustic strum help too, making this into a powerful stomper of a tune.

13. “Ghost Town (Acoustic)” – Justin Klump. Klump’s voice has some of the trembling passion of Needtobreathe’s Bear Rinehart, but it’s set in a poignant, sentimental acoustic pop arrangement featuring cello and gentle banjo.

14. “Strong” – The Paper Shades. In the midst of this hurried and harried world, we need gentle singer/songwriter duos to tell us to “slow it down.” Unspool your stresses and let the gorgeous waves break kindly over you. Here’s to those who are still carrying the torch of calm.

Concert Review: Ari Picker’s Lion and the Lamb

I don’t usually write live reviews, because I think it’s weird to describe something that categorically isn’t available for someone to hear. It’s also rare for me to write reviews where you can’t hear at least a single to know what the music sounds like. So you’ll have to bear with me on this one, because I’m about to review one of only two performances of the as-yet-unrecorded Ari Picker composition Lion and the Lamb.

You might know Ari Picker better as the songwriter of the now-retired orchestral folk outfit Lost in the Trees. Since the end of his previous project, he’s turned his eye firmly to orchestration. Lion and the Lamb is a classical work for 11 musicians: string quartet, french horn, saxophonist, pianist, drummer, bassist, and two vocalists. The classical and indie-rock performers that made up the temporary crew included Phil Moore of Bowerbirds, who opened the show with a solo set composed largely of new material. (“It’s my first show in two years,” he announced, but his formidable vocal and songwriting skills didn’t show rust.)

Lion and the Lamb is broken up into eight sections, which range from quite short to long, flowing pieces. Each is, to varying degrees, a tone poem: a piece of music set up largely to convey a feeling rather than to advance a certain motif or theme. As a result, the sections tend to feel less like “songs” and more like “movements.” This is critical to understanding and enjoying Lion and the Lamb; those looking for catchy melodies (even of the classical variety) will not largely feel at home here. If you sit back and let the mood wash over you, you’ll be in a much better place to enjoy the work.

The mood is a peculiar one: fit to Rainer Maria Rilke’s devotional poetry collection Book of Hours, the music delivers dissonant exuberance. “Beauty No. 1 (Descend)”–a complex title for a complex work–opens the set with a gently dissonant piano form consisting of slowly-moving bass notes strung together in a legato style. It is one of three Beauties, including the titular section; the “Descend” pattern is reprised in the last section. A great amount is packed into the opening, so it’s important to listen carefully.

The unexpected dissonance is an integral part of the melodic structure of the whole work: these tunes largely fall in minor keys and play with the listener’s expectation of dissonance. By the time the closing section “Autumn Day / Descend reprise” arrived, the dissonance had been largely normalized in my ear: it felt expected, even warm and comforting. It speaks to strong composition skills that Picker was able to develop that mood from jarring to pleasant throughout the work.

“Beauty No. 1” is instrumental; half of the eight do not feature lyrics. The wordless sections allow the string quartet, horn, and piano to take over the heavy lifting: Picker spends a lot of time layering and building in these pieces. “Chords” in particular sticks out as a successful piece, memorable for its ultimate sonic collage.

When the vocals do appear, they are often accompanied by drums, bass keys, and saxophone; “Panther” and “Sound Will Be Yours” were particularly excellent in this vein. The polyrhthymic drumming and intricate saxophone patterning lock in together, creating an exciting, eyebrow-raising sound. The bass supports these complex rhythms, grounding the whole song. The vocalists layer their notes on top of this controlled chaos, singing dramatically in powerful, enthusiastic tones. With the quartet, horn, and piano melded into this mix, the sound becomes a wonder to behold. The drumming in “Panther” is especially blood-pumping, while the frantic saxophone contributions there and elsewhere are riveting. An indie-rocker might say that it is well-orchestrated post-rock without v/c/v structure; a classical artist might say they are highly stylized, dramatic tone poems. Whatever you call the music, it is beautiful in an unusual way.

Picker’s arrangements straddle the border between indie-rock and classical: some melodies weren’t repeated enough for indie-rock standards, while the noisy kit drumming might rustle some classical feathers. But for the open-minded listener of music, this was a rare, unique offering. Picker said that he hopes to record the work, as well as write more in this vein–I hope that occurs. The complex beauty requires the stretching of the ear and mind a bit, but connects with the heart and emotions quickly. May that tension ever continue.

Fireships: Joy sprinkled with darkness

fireships

Fireships’ self-titled album is purely a joy to listen to. Their playful yet smart lyrics combine with brilliant instrumentation to make Fireships one you need to grab.

The album’s multifaceted influences will be sure to please a variety of audiences. With the overall feel of the album being rather uplifting, one might think that that’s all there is to the album. I mean, with an opener like “All We Got,” what more do we need than that driving beat, enlivening lyrics, and humble vocals? Yet, Fireships has even more to offer us!

With a closer look, you begin to hear folk, western, and even some African influences. Both “Chasing the Sun” and  “Countdown Time” show a Spaghetti Western influence. “Come Back To Me” enters with a very Caribbean feel done through its opening rhythms and instrumentation; “Going Down Fighting” is very reminiscent of the Beatles’ “Hey Jude.” The choral voices in “Fantasy” are reminiscent of Lou Reed’s “Walk on the Wild Side.”

One thing that stands out throughout the album is Fireships’ ingenious instrumentation. Each instrument is used to add different things for different songs: the guitar is playful in “Chasing the Sun”, yet soulful in “Long Shadow.” The sweetness in “Words Escape Me” comes from the guitar too; when paired with the violin, the six-string adds darkness to  “Carried Away.”

Although mostly cheery and upbeat, Fireships does have its moments of darkness, which serve to even out the sound. The best example of this is the juxtaposition between singles “Gush” and “Countdown Time,” both of which you can listen to now.  “Gush” begins with an opening guitar riff that is oddly reminiscent of Fountains Of Wayne’s “Stacy’s Mom.” As the track continues, it simply gets cuter and cuter (unlike “Stacy’s Mom,” which just gets creepier and creepier). And as “Gush” fades out and “Countdown Time” enters in, there’s a bit of uneasiness lingering.

Although “Countdown Time” sounds dark through it’s minor chords and ominous tone, the track is still just as playful as “Gush” (as evidenced by the track’s music video). The experience of hearing their most darling–but not cheesy–love song, then one of the darkest sounding tracks on the album, then the almost Bob Dylan-esque “Long Shadow” gives the listener a moment of darkness quickly swallowed up by folky happiness again. These transitions allow the album to be upbeat and happy, yet contain depth sprinkled with darkness.

Fireships was thoughtful enough to prepare us for the album’s end by closing with a song of preparation. “Unplug the Stars” serves as the perfect ending to a wonderful album. The repetition of the lyric “it’s time,” the gently driving beat, and calming strums of the guitar enable the listener to find reconciliation with the end of the album just in time for it to come to a close. Nothing could be a better example of Fireships’ brilliance.

Pre-order Fireships here!–Krisann Janowitz