I’ve been listening to M. Lockwood Porter‘s bands since 2005. In that time, he’s been in an early 2000s emo band, an energetic post-rock band that held my personal “favorite band ever” title for a good five years, and a San Fran indie-pop band. Now he’s stepping out on his own with a solo record called Judah’s Gone. And although it’s been almost a decade since he’s lived in Oklahoma, the record is largely about that place which Lockwood and I share as a home state.
Neither of us live there anymore, but apparently an Oklahoma flag hangs in the background of both our minds. The three highlight tracks from the record (“Judah’s Gone,” “Now My Time Has Come,” and “Osage County”) all reference the state specifically and neatly lay out the narrative of the album. Opener “Judah’s Gone” tells the story of Lockwood’s childhood and parentage in the state (spoiler: it doesn’t go so well), which leads to him fleeing the state as soon as he graduated high school (“Now My Time Has Come”). A bunch of relationships and regrets occur in his forays on both coasts (all the other songs on the record), before he looks back longingly at Oklahoma in a complicated, attached sort of way (“Osage County”). It’s the story of many, many Oklahomans, this one included. If there’s an ex-pat Oklahoman Facebook group somewhere, Lockwood should be promoting this there. It would sell like dry-rub chicken barbecue.
The fact that Judah’s Gone sounds largely like a lost Neil Young record would help the sales pitch as well. The arrangements are twangy, but in that laid-back, Southern sort of way that Neil Young virtually patented. Lockwood’s voice breaks and bends over notes (a la Neil), but largely stays in a recognizably “correct” range. Porter is a lot less nasally than Young, which is also great. The album only has one rockish tune: the fast-paced “Tonight,” which barely gets over 2:00. Porter puts some distortion on his voice for the tune, and it fits nicely. It’s nowhere near an art-rock tune from his previous ventures, but you can tell that Porter has a rock background. Otherwise, this is a folky alt-country record the whole way.
The few quibbles that could be lobbed at the record have to do with this being his debut in the genre: tunes like “Darkside” and “Higher Home” fit perfectly into the proscribed narratives of what folky alt-country should sound like, both in sound and word. The tunes sound fine, but they don’t show off Porter’s skills as a storyteller or melodist very well because of their adherence to tried-and-true formulas. Porter shows on tracks like “Stephen” (not about me) that he can bend the formulas to his skill set: the track is a mid-tempo song about the guy with vast promise who never left home. The tune is memorable because of the melodic chorus and the detailed care with which the lyrics are composed. So even if some tracks are a bit less shiny than the rest, it’s not something that a few more albums of songwriting can’t polish up.
M. Lockwood Porter has established himself as a talent to watch on Judah’s Gone. Tracks like the title track and “Osage County” show a melodic and lyrical talent with range and depth. It will be interesting to see where Porter goes from here as he gets familiar with the genre. I’ll be listening attentively to whatever it is. (Especially if there’s more Oklahoma angst.)
My love affair with enthusiastic, optimistic, instrumental punk/prog/post-rock (which I’ve been calling o-prog) began when I heard The Programme in 2005. The band’s lone album is still one of my favorites. So when Fang Island came along and blew the cover off the genre in the public’s eye, I was ecstatic. A wave of bands came to light who were (and had been) doing similar things under the cover of no one caring. And So I Watch You From Afar, All Tiny Creatures, Adebisi Shank and more have all come up on my radar since FI blew up. And now, Mental Architects is in that space as well.
Mental Architects‘ appropriately titled album Celebrations skews more toward the guitar acrobatics of Adebisi Shank than the punked-out work of ASIWYFA and Fang Island. But the band also puts more oomph behind the sound in terms of volume and distortion than All Tiny Creatures’ minimalist, sparkling constructions. “Launch the Avalanche” has a straightforward rock base before they add a layer of mysterious guitar; “Here is Where, Where Better” pairs a herky-jerky post-punk riff with the unusual rhythms and time signatures of post-rock. They can throw down when they want to, and no one would complain that it’s not rock. But they also love polyrhythms (“When Sound Turns Into a Person He Becomes One of Us,” oh wow) and tension-building (“Caves of Keys”). There’s a lot going on in this release. Side note: the humorously titled “Meth-rock” seriously sounds like the frantic sort of music I’d expect to hear in a Megaman video game.
As I was listening to these incredible tunes, the idea of the cover song came up in my mind. In pop music, it’s relatively simple to play someone else’s song: you learn the chords, put a spin on it of your own, and off you go. But with Celebrations, covering would be more along the lines of classical music: you’d have to really try to play this. And that’s a great thing. I love to hear a band making technical, interesting, challenging work for themselves that ends up being a ton of fun for listeners. It makes Celebrations a great listen, because even though I couldn’t often tell what was going to come next, I knew it was going to be delightful. And that’s the best type of release.
Okay, if you tuned in yesterday, you saw me tackle Shorthand Phonetics’ Errors in Calculating Odds, Errors in Calculating Value. I said the songwriting was awesome but that the album was too long because the vocals were difficult. For those of you looking for the promised treat at the end of the last review, here it is: Shorthand Phonetics’ Score no. 1 “Dream:Chase” in A major, op. 17, for Three Electric Guitars, One Bass Guitar and One Drum Kit is an album that’s one-fourth the length of Errors and totally instrumental. Basically, everything good about Errors is here and none of the bad.
The rock that Ababil Ashari so aptly writes is displayed in unadorned splendor here. There’s no lyrics or vocals to get in the way; just pure songwriting. Ashari strays from his pop-rock idiom some and moves toward Explosions in the Sky post-rock, but it couldn’t be more pleasing. For the post-rockers in the room, standout track “Act II: Middle, c. Your Dexterity Modifier is Just Right / Captain’s Armband / Display of Badasstitude” is much closer to Unwed Sailor’s optimistic melodies than Explosions’ moody ones, but not enough people know of Unwed Sailor. There is an awkward rock solo at the end of the song that doesn’t fit, but for the most part, there are glorious melodies that fit perfectly in the context of the song throughout.
But, like Errors, there are some incredibly poignant quiet moments as well. “Act II: Middle, b. XP From a Sage Expy (Terrific Speech 3) / Ease In (Taking a Level in Badass)” is strikingly well-composed as a minimalist piece. The fact that it segues perfectly into the aforementioned instrumental rock track is awesome.
It’s worth note that the entire eighteen-minute album plays as one song; it’s also worth note that there are composition skills at work here that go beyond “I can write eighteen straight minutes of music!” There are musical themes that are advanced, repeated, modified and re-introduced. There is ebb and flow of mood and emotion. This is, simply put, a classical piece of music in the rock idiom (just as the far-too-clunky title espouses it to be).
The only thing that I can really compare this to is The Programme, a Tulsa band that died an early death after releasing the best instrumental rock concept album about time travel that I’ve ever heard. And that’s high praise, because the Programme has often sat in the “favorite band” seat in my head. There are still weird, idiosyncratic moments in this release (like the weird and annoying feedback of “Sad Panda Dies…”, although when considering the epic moment that comes after the feedback, it can be admitted), because it is a Shorthand Phonetics release. But this is easily the best Shorthand Phonetics release I’ve ever heard, because it plays to every one of their strengths and eliminates all of the weaknesses. This is epic, fantastic, inspiring music. If you like epic rock’n’roll, instrumental rock, pop-rock, or generally exciting music, you need to check out the epic Score no. 1 “Dream:Chase” in A major, op. 17, for Three Electric Guitars, One Bass Guitar and One Drum Kit.
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.