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.)
In late 2004/early 2005, I bought a copy of Scales of Motion‘s self-titled EP. I admired them as elder statesmen in the Tulsa scene; as a high-school kid in my first band, I was awestruck that high-quality indie-rock existed in my hometown.
Jump forward to mid-2011, and Scales of Motion is still at it. If they members were elder statesmen then, they’re Methuselahs now. Yet, not much has changed: 2004’s Scales of Motion and 2011’s Nocturnes feature the same three guys: Chris Skillern (bass/vocals), Kevin Skillern (Guitar/bgvs) and Craig Maricle (drums). The band used the same studio for both sessions (Valcour Sound, in which I have recorded twice). Their 2011 wiry, post-punk-influenced indie-rock songs are not drastically different than their 2004 tunes.
But there is some variation. Nocturnes shows the band leaning toward the more pop-oriented side of its sound: slow-paced opener “Darkness” hangs on the vocal performance instead of the instrumentals. The band is content to set a mood than pummel the listener with riffs, as there are less breakdowns and gritty guitar sections than I expected to hear on Nocturnes.
Chris Skillern has always propelled the sound with his bass work; his angular, forceful riffs play the role of bass and rhythm guitar. Kevin Skillern contributes melodic, single-note runs and riffs over that work. That’s still the case for the majority of the album, but “Darkness” shows that they’ve grown in their confidence enough to not rely entirely on their tried-and-true formula. And while following track “Still We Sing” definitely is a classic Chris Skillern bass riff, the vocal melodies are just as important to the mood.
I noted in my quick overview that their post-punk influences add some edges to their pop songs, and their pop side knocks some of the edges off their post-punk work . “Still We Sing” is the former, but third track “Winter Heart” is very clearly the latter.
For my money, I enjoy the “Winter Heart” style most. Skillern’s high voice sounds best when it’s matched with some tough indie-rock to ground it — without a tether, Scales starts to sound like just another indie-pop band, and that’s not what they are at all. Chris Skillern even drops in a MeWithoutYou-esque spoken-word section, which just amps up the intensity even more. It’s a highlight of the album, and an example of what makes them special.
The bass, guitar and vocals lock into the inspired drum work on the rhythmic “Holier Mysteries.” It’s hard to explain how powerful Craig Maricle is when he’s drumming, but he’s one of the most intense skinsmen I’ve ever witnessed. He makes “Holier Mysteries” into the powerhouse it is. The rawness of the performance helps draw comparisons to The Felix Culpa, which, if you’ve read me gush about TFC, you know is high praise.
The rest of the album splits its time between nice pop tunes and tough indie-rock. On one side, “Hope” includes a harmonica and “My Beloved” sounds like what you think it might; the other, “A Better Dream” shows Kevin Skillern mashing out chords.
But the two sounds aren’t completely disparate; the mood overall is cohesive, and the album definitely feels of one piece. The lyrics also help the unity of the disc, being predominantly concerned with the day-to-day workings of the Christian life.
“Winter Heart,” “Holier Mysteries” and “A Better Dream” are some of the most satisfying rock tunes I’ve heard yet this year. The rest of the album, while not as arresting, is good. If old-school Appleseed Cast ate Death Cab for Cutie, it might sound something like this. Also, the album artwork (not just the cover, but the whole CD package) is gorgeous, and it has my vote for art of the year so far.
Built by Snow, a band hailing from Austin, Texas, describes their music as “catchy keyboard indie pop rock with an explosion of velcro melodies and magnetic hooks that hit your brain like an Atari blasting out of a bazooka.”
“Whoa,” I hear you readers say. “That band sounds like they would be fun to see live.”
Luckily for you, said group Built by Snow is on tour this June and they will be playing in Tulsa, Oklahoma on Monday June 15 at Soundpony Bar at 10 p.m.
This particular show is especially exciting for band member Matt Murray, who grew up around Tulsa.
“This will be my first show back in my hometown!” Murray said.
The four-piece Built by Snow is currently working their way up to the NXNE Music Festival in Canada, playing shows on the trip there and back. This is their first big tour, although they have played out-of-state gigs.
“We’re gonna be covering a really long distance compared to anything we’ve done before. It’s exciting!” said band member JP Pfertner.
The group also recently released a new album called MEGA in January.
“It’s kind of like plugging your brain into an 8-bit Nintendo. Then plugging guitars, vocals, and rock and roll in at the same time,” Pfertner said of MEGA.
Concert attendees can expect a very high-energy, fun performance, with lots of instrument-swapping between songs.
“We move around and sweat quite a bit. Sometimes we might look clumsy on stage when we’re all jumping around, but it’s all under control… sort of,” Pfertner said.
The group met one another at a local Austin TV station where they all work, and have been playing music together for about 3 years. But music was a major part of their lives even before Built by Snow.
Pfertner said that music runs in his family.
“My uncle even invented an instrument called ‘the hamatar.’ It’s crazy – two guitar necks stuck together pointing opposite directions. It allows one person to play two guitars at the same time. It was 80’s excess at its best,” Pfertner said.
Murray does not have quite the same familial claim to fame as “the hamatar,” but said that he also became interested in music at a young age. Murray began taking piano lessons at 11, only to quit, fall in love with guitar, and then get back into keyboard again.
Tulsa residents, check out Built by Snow this Monday at Soundpony Bar next to Cain’s Ballroom. The complete Built by Snow tour schedule is available on their myspace.
The most recent release from Tulsa musician Josh James, Asbestos Honey, has some really great moments and some not-so-great moments. James has also released an EP and another full-length LP with backing musicians called Painted in a Corner.
Asbestos Honey is a mix of pleasant, emotive songs with catchy melodies and also, unfortunately, some songs that are rather boring. For example, the album’s opener should normally be the place for an attention-grabbing number. But “Truth” is sadly wishy-washy and forgettable. The album improves vastly with the next song, “Rock Alone,” which has a bit of a Ryan Adams alt-country influence. The only problem is James’ overly breathy and strained vocals. If he loosened up a little and maybe didn’t try so hard (or at least sounded like he wasn’t trying really hard), the songs on Asbestos Honey would be much easier to listen to. And yet, the vocals on some songs, like the rockin’ “Ball and Chain” that has a fun falsetto vocal line, and the slow, folky “1829,” are much cleaner, clearer, and less self-conscious.
Josh James incorporates a wide range of genres, including country, folk, rock, and indie. The best songs on this album are the ones that have strong choruses that set them apart. The almost-anthem-esque “New Beginnings” and the upbeat, funky “Ball and Chain” are both examples of this. However, listeners can get lost in-between choruses on Asbestos Honey due to verses that can sometimes run together.
James just recently added a backing band called True Story with Adam Hewett on lead guitar and Sean Wilson on drums. Check out his schedule for upcoming shows around Oklahoma on his myspace.
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.