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Author: Megan Morgan

EP name proves fitting for listener; understanding breeds love

It took a few plays of The Vision of a Dying World’s EP I Will Not Fear What I Don’t Understand for it to grow on me – surprising, I thought, because it came to me so highly recommended. But once this EP started to sink in, its roots grew deep.

Perhaps somewhat strangely, I Will Not Fear reminds me a lot of the city I (currently) live in: Norman, Oklahoma. The EP is little (a short five songs), but substantial, like the semi-small town of Norman, which feels a lot smaller than it is. The EP blends in nicely with its roots and contemporaries of folk and country, but definitely still stands out. There are some decidedly Woody Guthrie-esque (and thus, Bob Dylan-esque) moments, but enough modernity that I could easily imagine it played in one of Norman’s arty coffee shops and hangouts. There’s a certain fuzziness in the recording that might make one think of continually windy weather. And I, too, had to warm up to Norman a little before falling in love with it.

“Do I Have To Stay Here Alone (Big White Clouds)” opens I Will Not Fear with a woody graininess, topped with a little sharpness in lead vocals that balances with full-sounding harmonies that actually sound like big white clouds, if that’s not too big a stretch of the imagination. The even-paced airy choruses blend the pieces together nicely.

“Heart in Seven” is more uptempo, but it doesn’t lose the “down home”/DIY/basement-in-a-prairie-home feel because of its simple instrumentation and echo-y reverb. The excellently-named “And the Truth Shall Let You Be or Brain vs. Heart” is the musical equivalent of a wavy line, with both soaring and dipping moments, pulling you along gently until suddenly you’re there with the band at the end, wishing it wasn’t quite over yet and wondering how you got there.

Of all the others on the EP, the song “Mantra/What Is and What Is Not” is definitely the most epic. It seems to have several movements, one sounding big and orchestral and another that emphasizes Fleet Foxes-like backup vocals.

I Will Not Fear What I Don’t Understand ends with a cover of Cake’s “Mexico,” but in The Vision of a Dying World’s revamping of the song, even a Cake fan might not recognize it.

Hopefully after this metaphor-heavy review, the reader will take a strong liking to The Vision of a Dying World’s EP I Will Not Fear What I Don’t Understand much sooner than I did.

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.

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.

"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.

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.

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.

Said the Whale gets an A, said the reviewer

From what I’ve heard that’s come out of Canada, I have yet to be disappointed. Well, except for maybe Avril Lavigne. I’ll narrow the category: folk-influenced indie from Canada can’t seem to go wrong. And Said the Whale from Vancouver doesn’t break this reputation.

Islands Disappear is the quintet’s second full-length album, released October 14. It ranges from gorgeous, picturesque acoustic ballads to more up-tempo, danceable electric numbers, but all have a certain (Canadian?) quaintness that keeps the album cohesive. Even the harder, grittier songs still have a bounciness to them. Part of this charm can be attributed to the harmonies, sometimes inter-gender, that saturate Islands Disappear. Somehow they capture the essence of cute without crossing the line into cutesy, a fine line that’s easy to cross.

These harmonies are instantly wooing in the lovely opener “Dear Elkhorn,” a song about getting lost that is easy to get lost in. (See? I just crossed that fine line into cutesy.) Another gem is the album’s single, the high-spirited, fun, and absurdly catchy “Camilo (The Magician).”

Throughout Islands Disappear, I’m reminded of the vocal lines of The Format, the sunniness of The Shins, and the quirkiness of The Decemberists (a compliment). But Said the Whale doesn’t sound too much like any of them, incorporating their own special sound in each song. For example, the guitar sound in the electric songs is distinctly different in each. And they’ve also incorporated ukulele in several songs, a move I love for several reasons. Personally, as a very amateur ukulele player, I love to hear it being used well in good music that’s not from Hawaii. And this aside, the instrument has a lovely and unique timbre that doesn’t get taken advantage of often. Listen to Said the Whale’s “Goodnight Moon” if you don’t believe me.

Really the only downside of this album is that some of the songs can get repetitive, but this is always due to lyrics and not the music itself. In the grand scheme of Islands Disappear, this factor hardly makes a decisive impact. This album is still very much recommended for adding a youthful diversity to anyone’s music collection.

Clawjob gets academic in latest concept EP

It takes guts and bravery for a rock band to choose to make a concept album. Concept albums are ambitious and usually not as accessible for new fans. They oblige listeners to pay attention and engage in a different way – namely, by requiring that their brains interpret the music instead of their emotions or unconsciously-tapping feet. And this is to say nothing about a concept album which takes its themes from the 19th century.

Clawjob, however, has the guts and the bravery (or maybe the craziness) to do just this. Their latest release, the EP Manifest Destiny, includes songs about events that you may remember from your high school U.S. History class. But one thing is certain: your teacher didn’t represent history in the cynical, dark way that Clawjob interpreted it.

Manifest Destiny opens with brash and moody distortion right away in “The Era of Good Feelings.” The lyrics taken out of context sound sunny and almost cheesy: “new technology/ and brand new frontiers can civilize the West/ we can do what we deem best/nothing can stop us now.” But when these words are matched with distorted guitar and synthesizer, and sung in an entirely unconvincing way, their meaning completely changes. It is very quickly understood that this so-called era of good feelings is, to put it lightly, perhaps not the most fitting name for the time period.

For example, the next track, “Slice Me Up,” is about battlefield surgery in the Civil War. Seriously. This song is much more energetic than the opener, and its herky-jerky style is reminiscent of Franz Ferdinand (which is another historical reference, come to think of it). But despite its heavy topic and troubling lyrics, you’ll still find yourself intoxicated by the driving guitar riffs. And definitely check out the comic-book style music video of “Slice Me Up” on Clawjob’s website.

Other topics include The Great Diamond Hoax of 1872 and the Industrial Revolution. And all throughout these subjects in Manifest Destiny there’s a feeling of sinister sarcasm, or it’s just downright troubling. That shouldn’t scare any potential listeners off, though. This EP has obviously been carefully crafted and planned, and its offbeat and different approach is interesting in itself. And, if nothing else, maybe Clawjob’s Manifest Destiny could serve as a history lesson.

Band with crazy name releases 7 inch vinyl

Empire! Empire! (I Was a Lonely Estate)” has got to be one of the all-time strangest band names I have ever encountered. First of all, it’s seven words long. Seven. Secondly, not only does it incorporate punctuation, the name includes different kinds – both exclamation points and parenthesis. It makes me wonder what their fans call them. Maybe just “Empire! Empire!”? (But then do you have to say it with a raised voice?) Or what about “E.E.I.W.A.L.E.”?