Even though piano-centric singer/songwriters never seem to go out of style, piano-rock has had much less sustained success. Over the past two decades, the genre has flashes of critical and popular acclaim (Ben Folds Five! Something Corporate! Jack’s Mannequin! Relient K!) before diving back under the covers. Eric Schackne is the latest in a long line of musicians combining the melodious strains of piano with the pounding enthusiasm of pop/rock, and I greatly enjoy his tunes on the Hammers and Strings EP.
Schackne does include guitar in his tunes, unlike some piano-centric bands, but the keys take precedence. The pounding “This Classic Romance” takes it power from the clanging chords of the piano, while “Loud and Clear” pulls its energy from a frantic piano melody. Schackne’s smooth vocals offer a lot to the latter tune as well: the rapid-fire delivery and clever lyrics are reminiscent of Relient K’s Matt Thiessen. Schackne has a lower voice than Thiessen, and it fits with the bass-heavy mix that Schackne put together on most of the EP.
“The sound of my dreams coming true / is when I can leave the singing up to you,” belts Schackne, and it’s a sentiment than any pop musician can agree with wholeheartedly. A pop musician is what Schackne unabashedly is, as he throws down hummable melodies, crescendo-heavy choruses, and sweeping arrangements. He’s aiming high, and not just in musical quality; just from the titles of “Well Dressed Future” and “Art Can Change the World,” it’s clear that Shackne has aligned himself in the idealist optimist camp. And why not? Happy sounds, positive lyrics, great melodies; there’s a lot to be enthusiastic about in Hammers and Strings, both for Schackne and lovers of good piano-pop.
Sometimes split releases pair incongruous bands, but Mad Anthony and The Yellow Belts complement each other perfectly. Each band contributes a song to a 7″ of rowdy rock’n’roll. The Yellow Belts’ hard-charging “War on Science” combines the four-on-the-floor urgency of Clutch with elements of the early ’00s rock revival, while Mad Anthony’s “Bear Attack” more directly draws from the Strokes/Hives/Vines rock sounds in songwriting style, guitar sound and overall mood. Both songs are pulled off with ferocity and fervor, making it a completely enjoyable 6:54. If you’re into rock, you’ll be into this.
Pop-rockers The Gromble are releasing a full-length later this year, but their self-titled EP is starting to work its way into my consciousness. If I had to put the The Gromble on a musical map, they’d be somewhere between Jack’s Mannequin on the high side and OK Go on the low side in terms of saccharine pop qualities. (I’m a big fan of both bands, so take that as a compliment.) Guitar-heavy tunes like “Cold Wolves” and “Toto” evoke the treadmill-running merrymakers, while the lazy “NYC Frog” has a melodic core reminiscent of Andrew McMahon’s work. If you’re into pop-rock, The Gromble needs to be on your radar. I’m looking forward to the full-length album immensely.
Do you like happiness? Good. Do you like exuberance? Good. Do you like giddiness? Great, because that’s the level of enthusiasm you’ll need to take in Jacob’s List. Their EP Corks and Screws is as optimistic as Anathallo, as exuberant as The Format and as frenetic as Jack’s Mannequin.
It’s piano-based indie pop, that much is sure. And they’re ecstatic about something, that much is also true. There are handclaps, group singalongs, woo!s and guitar solos. The best example of this is “Claire,” which even manages to pack in some Hold Steady-esque story-song lyrics delivered in a distinctly Craig Finn-ian drawl (albeit more melodic). I swear, if it’s not on your next mixtape, a unicorn will explode into a dozen little rainbows.
But right after they establish that they’re the second coming of The Unicorns (with a piano), they toss in a stomping rock aside. Did I mention it’s the title track? Yes, Jacob’s List knows how to keep a listener riveted. The acoustic-heavy “Tall Tall Grass” sounds like the best things that Annuals have been able to pull off, and “Bloodlines” is eight frickin minutes long. Needless to say, it is awesome.
Jacob’s List know how to throw down an EP. Corks and Screws establishes them very firmly in my mind as a band to watch. No one can make music this exuberant and technically proficient only to stay in a garage. Someone get this band to SXSW! Stat! Until then, I’ll be over here, smiling giddily, listening intently and petting the unicorn.
Pull a Star Trip’s E-vasion Inn is one of the more ambitious acoustic projects I’ve heard in a while. Instead of being content to be an acoustic guitar-fronted band singing pretty songs, they set out to fill their songs with memorable touches: background screaming, songs in other languages, electronic beats and more. For the most part, it works.
The base sound isn’t anything that hasn’t been done before. The members of Pull a Star Trip strum their acoustic guitar a lot, stick drums/bass behind it and augment with strings. They sing loudly and passionately, occasionally sacrificing tunefulness for impassioned cries (a la Places You Have Come to Fear the Most-era Dashboard Confessional, which is a compliment). The songs are all worthy of singing along, and some are even worthy of headbanging.
On top of this tried and true base, they layer their personality. The screaming is the most recognizable bit. They do have the sense to always keep it at the same monitor level as background vocals; it’s never in your face. That’s good, because it’s straight-up hardcore/metal raspy screaming. It’s used to good effect in the dramatic “My Last Wish Shall Be a Time Machine,” but in the Jason Mraz-esque “Co-driver,” it just feels really off. By the end of the album, I’d heard it so much that it pretty much registered as static and not as a meaningful element any more.
“Senal” is their offering in another language, and it’s a lush, gorgeous tune. The strings, piano, and electronic elements implemented work together excellently, and the hushed vocals only intensify the mood. The fact that it’s in a cryptic (and therefore, intriguing) language makes it even more fascinating. They do break back into English for the chorus, and that chorus is the best one of the album, as it makes great use of melody and rhythm. “Senal” is definitely one of the most memorable tracks, even though it’s incredibly challenging to sing along with (as you might imagine).”Los Rojiblancos” is in yet another language, and its rattling, consistent Spanish groove and excellent trumpet work creates another winner.
The majority of the album passes in a propulsive yet still breezy mood. If any number of pop/rock bands busted out their acoustic chops more (Boys Like Girls, We the Kings, Yellowcard, etc) but did it with legitimacy and not as a cheap ploy, it would sound similar. As it stands, the sound is similar enough to stuff that’s on the radio to be immediately accessible but different enough to be immediately embraced and enjoyed with out guilt. The large emphasis on strings should make fans of Yellowcard sit up and take notice, while the emphasis on fast, breezy but still intense songs should make fans of Something Corporate and Jack’s Mannequin sign on.
This album is highly recommended for fans of modern pop/rock. It will fit nicely in your collection while filling a space that’s been abandoned since Dashboard Confessional abdicated their spot as kings of acoustic rocking (and, no matter what they say, the Honorary Title is not taking the crown).
Band Name: Jack’s Mannequin
Album Name: This Is a Story (Single)
Best Element: Very catchy songs.
Label Name: Maverick Records (www.maverickrecords.com)
Band E-mail: N/a
I will be the first to admit that I don’t like the normal pop-punk bands that are everywhere, but Jack’s Mannequin is one that I will listen to for years to come. They are one of the best project bands I have heard in a long time, as the lead singer from Something Corporate pulls Jack’s Mannequin together to make them a very solid band.
The opener “Mixed Tape” is an extremely catchy tune- one of those songs that will get stuck in your head for days. Its staggered drum beats make the song different from the standard 1,2,3,4 pattern in most other pop-punk songs. Another feature that caught my attention was the very pleasant use of a piano throughout all three songs. Although many newer recordings feature a keyboard, the real piano sound playing the melodies gives the music a certain texture that can’t be beat. With this idea, Jack’s Mannequin achieves a sound that reminds me of Relient K and Ben Folds.
On the other hand, I am not a fan of generic music- music that falls neatly into a specific genre. I feel bands that to create something new, bands must incorporate multiple styles into their music. This is one of the shortcomings of Jack’s Mannequin: their California summer music follows suit with all the other artists in the pop-punk category.
Jack’s Mannequin is a good project band that draws people into their music with catchy tunes and innovative instrumental arrangements. Besides some minor drug references and “off-color” language, This Is a Story is a very clean-cut, if not exactly groundbreaking, record. You should try them- who knows? You might like them.
Stephen Carradini and Lisa Whealy write reviews of instrumental, folk, and singer/songwriter music. We write about those trying to make the next step in their careers and established artists.