Monday, June 13, 2016

Artist: Lady

Dark blue storm clouds can be stunning. But they're usually impressive, in part, because you see them in person, and rarely. They'd be far less appealing as photographs. (Imagine flipping through pictures of only slightly different clouds.)

It's just like shoegaze. I could sit there in front of speaker columns, mouth open, gobsmacked by the torrent waves of distortion that impart real physical force. Then again, I could have to review 20 shoegaze bands, and end up wanting to shoot myself in the face. Lady is the cumulonimbus, 10 miles high, right outside your door: And here's my roundabout way of saying why.
Let's continue a bit with the storm cloud motif. Because reading about the hallmarks of shoegaze had me trying to nail down my first experience with the genre. And I think it was A Storm in Heaven, the Verve's debut. Even listening now, I hear the first distorted chord ring out, and can see the Disc Replay. I sense the impending guitar atmospherics, and smell the CD listening station.

But the lesson here is not that the Verve rules. In fact, I'd hesitate to name a winner between them and the Verve Pipe, until I had serious listens to both. Instead, the takeaway is that for a band with a shoegaze debut like the Verve, they had to add pop before listeners everywhere would deep-dive their back catalog (to stumble on their shoegaze roots). Actually, in the case of the Verve, they had to force Jagger & Richards against their will into the songwriting credits before anyone cared:

The history of shoegaze is fairly short, and My Bloody Valentine figures prominently. But one wonders whether the scene would have amounted to much if MBV wasn't as dynamic as pop – the sonic signature of “Only Shallow” as singular as any pop hook. And it is here that we finally turn to Lady. Lady opens its debut EP, Washer, with tidal waves of chords that are sure to please legions of shoegaze faithful, before opening up with melodic guitar embellishment (at 4:41 of “Creatures of the Night”) that could convert a headphones-listener or two. And they sustain interest with flashes of darkness (at 2:29 of “Can't Stay”), which wouldn't sound out of place on Sonic Youth's “Death Valley '69” (Bad Moon Rising version).

But it all comes together on “Things Are Wrong,” which serves to remind that dynamism in shoegaze can add radio listeners while enthralling live audiences. The song is different from the start. Nary a chordal wave till 1:27. And the vocal similarities to Bradford Cox – heard on “On My Mind” at :41 – have me thinking... Lady is the thunder and lightening to the woozy haze that is Cox's Deerhunter/Atlas Sound. And that should please virtually everyone – whether under headphones or at stage's edge.

*** The author of this review, Russell Hughes, plays the mrdanga for the following band:

Artist: Little Prince

So I was enjoying the final track on my first listen of Little Prince's Demo (, when I was struck by the narrator's obsession with a rebel girl that oddly manifested itself in wanting to try on her clothes. Then it hit me: this impulse was not new. I had heard it before. Only then did I check the track's info screen, which confirmed it was a cover (Bikini Kill). Perhaps I should have recognized it sooner; alas, I am a lowly general music reviewer, and not a punk specialist. In fact, my most recent Kathleen Hanna sighting was when The Punk Singer was streaming on Netflix, which I cut short with a Beastie Boy sojourn sparked by the documentary's Mr. Ad-Rock Hanna.
Given my rudimentary Bikini Kill education, Little Prince reminded me more of the recent punk super-group Childbirth. Instead of alluding to Chan Marshall, Little Prince's "Cat Power" is adorable adoration of an actual cat. Probably the same cat gracing Demo's album art in a tiara. (Wait a minute. Is the band Little Prince named after the cat Little Prince?) Childbirth is a fair comparison: singing about dogs, dogs being outside, dogs wanting to come in, asking others to let the dogs in. Little Prince sings about dudes (on "Fuck You"), while Childbirth sings about tech bros. And like Childbirth's "You're Not My Real Dad," Little Prince brings the funny on "Cat Power." And it begs the question: Do you really need to list teen soap opera 90210 as a guilty pleasure if it's the cat who's watching it? (I'm asking for a friend.)

But something about the prominent vocals, so stylish in delivery - the speedy phrasing of "Why" (e.g. :33) and "Fuck You" (:39) - that had me comparing them to personal favorites Girlpool. Little Prince could no doubt pull off a convincing "Blah Blah Blah" cover. However, since the EP is ostensibly a Demo, I'll have look forward to Little Prince's subsequent releases. Maybe the crushing of "Why" will mature into something truly stunning a la Girlpool's "Emily."

*** The author of this review, Danny West, plays the samphor for the following band:

Thursday, May 26, 2016

Nick B. Reviewed by Jessi Roti

Artist: Nick B.
Reviewed by Jessi Roti – @JessiTaylorRO 

Houston, Texas-based rapper Nick B. packs tough rhymes into short-and-sweet tracks that carry a heavy load. An assortment of tracks, spanning four years in his life as an MC, show not only growth in his sound, but a deeper perception of self from tracks like “Playing Games” to “Prepared.”

We get a glimpse into the world of Nick B., and it is obviously inspired by ‘90s hip-hop, balancing hard beats with more abstract electronica, including sounds from the nearly defunct video game arcade.  The smoke screen sounds permeating the records of Dr. Dre and Snoop Dogg find themselves being reworked here. “The Reasons” flows along a decidedly understated R&B melody, while “Contempt” holds itself up as a necessary replay. 
For me, Nick B.’s standout track is “Prepared.” Its insightful, “real-life” rhymes ride along a chilled-out beat similar to what Lupe Fiasco employed on Food & Liquor. Nick B. may be at his best when there’s no stuntin’ or frontin,’ as heard on tracks like “You Don’t Want It” or “Playing Games.” He’s hopeful, yet realistic. His truths hit home and ride along an undeniable groove.

Nick B.'s riotous “The Message” is among his most autobiographical to date, speaking honestly and emanating rawness without gloss.  From childhood to adulthood, we're hearing Nick B. and his experience. This is always more interesting than listening through a persona. 

Nick B. may not spit the fastest rhymes or be revolutionary with the slickest of beats, but he does know who he is. And that's a far stronger foundation than any production tricks could provide.

Saturday, December 12, 2015

Massage Club - Tonight @ Arrogant Swine (Battle Cat Fundraiser)

Event: Battle Cat Fundraiser, Tonight at 7 p.m.
Interviewed Artist: Massage Club, performs at 10 p.m. or so
Other Event Performers: TigerPunch Improv, Sarah Lydia Anne Banks, Honey LaBronx Vegan Drag Queen, Omar Bustamante, and Dan Monaghan
Venue: Arrogant Swine, Bushwick, Brooklyn

1. Very excited to see you guys perform tonight at the Battle Cat Fundraiser at Arrogant Swine in Brooklyn. What has Massage Club been up to?
Mariá Vas: We just recorded an album with our friend and producer Kahan James. It’s our first “real” recording. All new stuff that we’ve been working on for the past year or so. I really wish we could send you something from it right now, but we’ve just finished tracking.

2. What from your wonderful BandCamp page,, can we expect to see you play live tonight?
Mariá: “Energy” is the only demo out of those four that we will perform tonight. The other songs are from a different phase. When the band had a different formation and sound.

3. Your band has a Brazilian connection, does it not?
M: I am Brazilian. Born and raised. I moved to NY about 8 years ago.
4. Since it sounds like only band members and producer Kahan James are the only ones in the know about what Massage Club sounds like right now, can you point to other references, e.g. other bands, for fans of indie music in general?
M: This is a tricky question. I can get inspired by pretty much anything, even things I don’t necessarily like. And there are a lot of contemporary musicians/bands that we admire. The list would be huge. Dirty Projectors, Devendra Banhart, Mac DeMarco, CocoRosie, LCD, David Byrne and Bjork just to name a few. But we don’t aspire to sound like anything particularly. We try to give our songs the sound they are asking for. That’s it.

5. Yeah, “Energy” for me would summon a rich vocal like a Bjork or Joanna Newsom, over minimalist guitar akin to the xx. But what should we go in expecting for tonight's benefit show? What is Massage Club on stage?
M: Expect nothing and be ready for anything. Like dreamers do.

6. Massage Club has been around awhile ( But from what I can gather, the band has chosen to evolve, rather than to remain static. Can you explain Massage Club's development?
M: Back in 2010 a Brazilian friend of mine moved into a hole in the wall in a Bushwick loft she shared with six other people. The next day she called me and said “we are in a band.” I had never played an instrument or been in a band before. So I was like “yea right…” It turned out she’d met Steve Nelson and the two bonded over Caetano Veloso and Os Mutantes and they decided to do a Tropicália cover band. And she signed me up as the singer. I went along with it. Few weeks in and I started writing my own songs. Then a friend, Ian Gilian, joined to play drums and another Jake Strunk filled in on the bass. We wrote about 6 or 7 songs. They were juicy and fun. These guys all had other bands they were serious about so Massage Club was our fun little hobby project. We were kids, there was a whole Bushwick scene and we were playing all sorts of loft parties, DIY venues and other Brooklyn venues such as late Trash Bar.

God rest its saintly soul.
M: Then I decided to move to Italy and that was the end of it. Except it wasn’t. Over the one year I lived there songs kept coming to me and I kept writing them. When I came back Steve and I started working on them and we needed a new band. But these new songs they didn’t call for a typical four piece rock band. They were different, weirdly structured and often so distinct from one another. So we invited Sarah Rayne, an old friend from the loft times and she started playing keys. We worked hard, we tried out some other members that didn’t work out and eventually brought in Kahan James to produce us. He is currently recording and producing our album and also having a blast on the drums. Tonight the four of us will play what has come out of this collaboration so far. We’ve come a long way to connect with people through our music and that’s our favorite thing to do.

That comes through in songs like “Energy,” which I'll look forward to hearing tonight!

Sunday, June 7, 2015

Artist: The Spinning Game

Artist: The Spinning Game
Review by Jessi Roti – @JessiTaylorRO

The Spinning Game is the one-man band and brainchild of Matt Lester. A current resident of Humble, Texas, Lester combined his east coast/Pennsylvania self-assurance with “humble,” southern living. Uprooted, the result of Lester’s move, is the road warrior’s coming-of-age album. He seamlessly adopts a country stomp to his Dylan-esque drawl to create his own brand of roots rebellion.

Lester loops and layers his acoustic guitar across the EP's seven tracks, but fearlessly flexes his electric muscle to rev the album’s beat-up engine without it sounding out-of-place. “Don’t Call Me” features a brief but inspired flash of this deep understanding of song composition. “Salt” and “Plans” inject an infectious jangle to his folk-pop that is believable, not gimmicky.
Lyrically, no new territory is tread. Lester howls on “Khakis” that he’s more than his name, his family, his possessions, his fucking khakis. “Double Knot” explores the dichotomy between getting out and growing up, or realizing that no matter how much time you spend on the road, growing up is inevitable – but maybe not as you had previously imagined, which is relatable for anyone trying to live by their own definition of authenticity. His somewhat bleak lyrics aren’t inherently sad or negative, but honest, verging on unhinged. He’s not writing with anyone else’s feelings in mind but his own, because who else can live your life but you?

“California” is Matt’s loudest Dylan-echo, but not in a tribute-like way. It’s the gentility of it before the stormy screech of the harmonica. It’s this sort of finesse that inspires devotion as only true folk can.

Matt Lester is obviously a talented individual. In addition to writing and producing each track, he played every instrument on Uprooted. It’ll be interesting to see where he rides this folk-pop wave, and what he comes up with after being settled in one place.

Saturday, May 23, 2015

Artist: Mystery Loves Company

Artist: Mystery Loves Company
Review by Jessi Roti – @JessiTaylorRO
Album: Rock Symphony Billion

Houston-based Mystery Loves Company describes its second studio album as “a chamber rock album in four movements.” Rock Symphony Billion finds itself somewhere between a concept album and an off-Broadway musical, thematic but maybe not as theatrical or over-the-top. However, it does bring the narrative drama needed for the stories to unfold on stage, whether that stage is in an amphitheater or otherwise.

The first movement includes the tracks “Rambunctious Cowboy,” “Fly,” and “Slow.” Each track plays with the concept of aging and where one should be mentally or stably when they’re young versus when they’re old. It’s abstract, but not necessarily difficult to follow. There are no rules, but rather societal norms and expectations people are expected to fill. Mystery Loves Company doesn’t feel like filling any norms of what’s expected of them.
“Graven,” “Sister When,” and “From the Stars” follow the same southern-tinged, swamp-folk Mystery Loves Company stomped into preceding tracks. Vocalist/cellist Madeline Herdeman sounds almost possessed on “Graven,” like she’s singing as she’s being dragged down to the bayou for an unwarranted baptism. Third movement tracks, “The Island,” “Day by Day,” and “Across the Emptiness” are helmed by a jazz-clarinet and a rushing acoustic rhythm that’s almost samba-like. Maybe the “unwarranted baptism” was a necessary evil/good?

“Fireworks” marks the album’s (and journey’s) end, though it’s unclear if it’s truly a happy ending. If not happy, definitely hopeful. The vocalists build a round into a flood of electric guitar and trumpet akin to the infectious jubilee of the Beatles’ “All You Need is Love.” It’s a grand finale, a celebration that’s worthy of taking a bow.

Storytellers, artists like Willie Nelson, Bob Dylan, and Loretta Lynn, create the scene and the space for their tales to come to life, much like Mystery Loves Company has the skill to do. But unlike Nelson, Dylan, and Lynn – whose songs could stand alone as popular singles or become anthems for a generation or specific genre – Mystery Loves Company’s songs more strongly parallel showtunes. The story, the scene that they’ve set is too big for popular music or even indie. Turn Rock Symphony Billion into a stage play, and you’ve got a hit.

Tuesday, May 5, 2015

Artist: Playing for No One

Artist: Playing for No One
Review by Jessi Roti – @JessiTaylorRO
EP: Cold Light

Houston’s Playing for No One won’t be for long – that is, playing for no one. The band’s EP, Cold Light, is roughly 12 minutes of fuzzy, nu-wave drowned out by garage-rock feedback – like a dirty, younger brother of Bradford Cox’s Deerhunter.

“DeathInWaves” and “RedEmma” are driven by a low, bass rumble that seems to echo Joy Division before Christopher Bates’ vocals coldly, vulnerably breathe life into the tracks. While that “muted” affect is there, the band packs a punch lyrically without relying on an in-your-face, explosive sound. The Bates boys howl, “There is no operation / There is no crowd control / There is no situation hypothetical / I just wanna rock and roll!” It’s a rambunctious declaration of mayhem for a band that steadily rides a chilled wave across four tracks.
Self-described as “alternative punk revival,” the group also channels acts like Collective Soul on the understated, indie-rock lullaby “BigMachine.” As the guitars ebb-and-flow against each other, the vocals float above, tired and breathy in the most alive way. It’s like Strokes-lite, but as of 2015, the Strokes would only be so lucky as to produce a song like this.

The EP comes to a close with the band’s most rollicking delivery, “TigerBloodSnowCone.” It’s English sounding, if that makes sense. Like the snide, low-key brattiness the Clash embodied briefly before deciding they were too cool, or maybe Pete Doherty’s Babyshambles. The guitar seems to race against itself before the reckless bang of the drums kick the track into high-gear. The explosive vocals beckon a Bauhaus comparison as it’s the most animated the band appears on Cold Light. Most importantly, it’s memorable – like a great finale should be.

Playing for No One has skillfully balanced influence with identity. The band’s sound is familiar, but isn’t rehashing anything, and while maybe a bit muted, it definitely isn’t boring. If this is some type of “revival” – why did we ever let this sound die in the first place?

Saturday, March 28, 2015

Artist: Teen Mom

Review by Jessi Roti – @JessiTaylorRO
Artist: Teen Mom
Album: Gilly

Washington, D.C.’s Teen Mom, while adopting the feminized band name, aren’t strangers to their emotions. The band’s four-track EP, Gilly, explores an understated, sugary sweetness that only a trio of “sensitive guys” could produce.

Opening track, “Kitchen” introduces the band’s lo-fi fuzz, which echoes the likes of My Bloody Valentine or Real Estate. Toward the end of the six and a half minutes, a bossa nova vibe breaks up the monotony of the languid, neo-shoegaze sound. And while there are moments of droning reverb that leave you wanting a more explosive, shredding guitar or the bang of a bass drum, the tracks flow together seamlessly enough to act as their own breaks.
“Prom Song” and “Say Anything” epitomize the romanticism that the band employs along with the lushness of the instrumentation, giving the release, as a whole, a much more expansive feel rather than a static wall-of-sound that most lo-fi, indie pop falls prey to.

Gilly’s acoustically-driven “Stay Inside” sounds like the end of summer, or of a summer romance. It shrugs off any need of something “heavier,” or less pop, as a truly inspired guitar riff tears up the end of the track. It’s just nice, like feeling the warmth of the sun on your face. Not to mention, it could easily fit on now-defunct band, Girls’ final album.

But here’s the thing, is an EP of four, semi-static, love songs featuring young, Conor Oberst-like whispery vocals enough? Is the vulnerability compelling enough to expand across an LP in the future? Maybe. For a band from D.C., there is an effortless, west coast cool to Teen Mom’s delivery; a beach-bum innocence, if you will. The band knows its identity and knows what it’s doing, but new ground is going to need to be treaded sooner-or-later.

Teen Mom is going to have to turn it up to 11.

Friday, March 27, 2015

Artist: Hail Farm

Artist: Hail Farm
Album: Perfect Human
Available for free/pay-what-you-want download at

Metallica is not the complete band. I thought they were. Right after hearing their S&M album – the one with the San Francisco Symphony (conducted by Michael Kamen, “yeah!”) – I thought they had it locked. The lead track was what I assumed was a Metallica deep cut I never bothered to listen to. “The Ecstasy of Gold” was, to my ear, another example of Metallica trading the “live fast, die young” ethos of old school metal for the delayed but deeply gratifying dynamism mined for commercial gold with 1991's Black Album. It would be interesting at best, tedious at worst, had they decided to instead drag an orchestra full of instruments more subtly evocative than crushingly brutal as Metallica just rode the lightening for two hours.

But “The Ecstasy of Gold” intro was not theirs. It was written three decades earlier by Ennio Morricone. You know, the Academy Award-winning Spaghetti Western guy whose scores somehow made gun-draws more dramatic? (Without him, who knows ... we might have realized idiots were dying for lack of wrist speed.) Mars Volta also used Morricone as entrance music, and I'm guessing WWE wrestlers are next.
But Morricone is influential for a reason – the same reason Kirk Hammett shouldn't be allowed to sloppily wah-wah all over him. Simply put, the guy can write a theme. And he exploits it with minimal (and unconventional-sounding) instruments to maximum effect. And so it is with Philadelphia's Hail Farm.

Fire up the lead track of Hail Farm's Perfect Human, and you'll hear why I just wasted all that hot air on Morricone via Metallica. With “Anniversary,” Michael O'Neill nails the spirit of Morricone. Over rolling drums (Asher Berlin), guitar set on reverb, O'Neill summons that same movie magic with layers of guitar textures, patterns and melodies.

The lyrics too are at their best when imagist and fantastical. On “Leaves,” you see, hear, and experience the peaceful serenity of: “my sisters they live in the stars / They come around once a year in the dark / Did you see me in the trees? / I was counting up all the leaves.” It's the same idyllic scene captured by Hum's “Stars.” But instead of Hum's “Creep”-like wall o' guitar (Radiohead not TLC), Hail Farm does more with less. Whether it's the doubled cello that I mistook for a classy-ass harmonica (at 1:20 of “Anniversary”), an upper-register bass fill (Bradford Dessy at 3:01 of “Anniversary”), or dramatic horns (1:52 of “All These Words” or 1:00 of “Not the Moon”), Hail Farm creates physical settings much like Porno for Pyros' “Porpoise Head” and Finley Quaye's “Supreme I Preme” did for me – soundscapes, all.

So too with “Skyscrapers,” which pointed towards a more appropriate micro-genre than Spaghetti Western. Because the title itself conjures “Skyscraper” by Julian Plenti aka Interpol's Paul Banks. Like Michael O'Neill for Hail Farm, Banks' own “Skyscraper” builds impressive structures with intricate guitar patterns as beams and melodic riffs as decorative columns.

And it is this skill-set O'Neill can use to dip into and out of musical styles at will. 'Cause he might need it. The stud cellist (Ben Austin) and trumpeter (Ian Cochran) of Hail Farm might soon be busy with a Morricone score for whatever Tarantino's got planned next.

*** The author of this review, Allen Murray, plays the tamborita for the following band:

Monday, March 23, 2015

Artist: Black Market Rebellion

Review by Jessi Roti – @JessiTaylorRO
Artist: Black Market Rebellion
Album: Act Two: The Blasphemy Tapes

Rock and roll, like many genres, is multi-faceted. When all of those facets work together, there’s truly nothing better. Your heart pounds and your pulse races to the tempo set by the drums, while your head bangs along to dueling guitars and a subtle bass groove.

These familiar feelings flood back while listening to Black Market Rebellion’s 2014 release, Act Two: The Blasphemy Tapes. As the title suggests, rock and roll thematics follow suit across 10 tracks. The opening track, “The Unexamined Life” is a solid introduction. Like the revving of an engine, the band definitely hones in on a power-chord heavy, adrenaline rush.
Every piece of Black Market Rebellion fits. Bryan Kelly’s lead vocals are what you’d want, or expect, from a rock singer. Heavy, but not all that intimidating, while hushed with a hint of sensuality when the track calls for it. “2 More 4 Mischief” exemplifies the line that’s been drawn in the sands of rock music, the line between being authentic enough for the harshest critic, while engaging in just enough sexuality to be interested in by the mainstream.

“Louisiana Roots” really showcases the talent this group of four possesses. The crescendo of the guitar flows seamlessly, while drummer A.J. Jackson knows when to drum full-force and when to pull back and utilize the hi-hat. At its simplest, Black Market Rebellion produces enjoyable rock and roll with classic, metal influence.

But while it’s enjoyable, it is almost too familiar. References to Foo Fighters and Finnish-“love metal” act H.I.M. are pretty blatant. Slightly more pop-tinged tracks like “Marie” are reminiscent of something Poison would have released at the height of ‘80s hair-metal. This, again, is enjoyable, but nothing new. Black Market Rebellion has monster potential, but at the end of the record, they’re still a moderately young band looking to establish their own identity amongst a scene that’s as saturated as ever.

I say, leave the pop tracks behind and go for the jugular. With a band that has four, ridiculously strong talents, don’t water-down your sound to the likes of Bret Michaels. Go for Ozzy.

Wednesday, March 18, 2015

Artist: WaxWorks

Artist: WaxWorks

As much as I love Pearl Jam, Eddie Vedder's evolving roles have presented issues. But at least Mike McCready blessed Vedder's guitar-playing: "Even though there are three guitars, I think there's maybe more room now. Stone will pull back and play a two-note line and Ed will do a power chord thing, and I fit into all that."

There's something about Chicago's WaxWorks that got me thinking about that. Because when a band brings to bear a considerable complement of professional musicianship, they still need space to work with.
Whether it be the whipsaw drumming starting at 1:49 of WaxWorks “Modern Love” (which is closer to “Golden Years” than Bowie's titular doppelganger); a bass that single-handedly carries a song (i.e. intro to “I Got a Woman”); a guitar that runs from silly sophistication (at 2:00) to seriously shredtastic (at 5:15) on “All Tore Up”; and a staggering vocal that ranges from the visceral soul showcased on “All Tore Up” to Lenny Kravitz-like power on “I Got A Woman” (at 2:39) – it's the space, the lull, the quiet before the storm, that sets up effective punches like the crunchy distortion at :33 of “Cold Bones” or its vocal-fill-turn-hook at 2:23.

And I have no idea if it's friendship or mutual respect that has the band acting like, well, a band; but one Mad Love song sums it up for me. “I Got a Sorrow” starts with a narrator paced by a solitary guitar. The moment he hints at quiet desperation, his friends are by his side (at:29) – with airy drums over pulsing bass guitar. Together they fall into their old rhythms, helping their friend “burn” away his pain, back at the old stomping grounds (lake). (It's almost like they knew that relationship wouldn't last.)

The two singles WaxWorks released in 2014 were “recorded on cold days with minimal production.” WaxWorks is a band that can do this, with product that can withstand repeated listens. How much you wanna bet they can do it live?

*** The author of this review, Rodney Gibson, plays the tsuzumi for the following band:

Artist: Top Shelf Lickers

Artist: Top Shelf Lickers

First thing's first. Top Shelf Lickers' latest EP lacks the harmonica that helped distinguish their previous LP. Circumstances are weird when we're talking about harmonica in a punk review, but that's TSL – not your average punk band. All it takes is a few spins of Neil Turk wailing on that thing during Head First's “Mr. McShakes” and “Off My Head” to know how much instruments like that add to TSL's mix. But if harmonica is Top Shelf Lickers' role player cherished for its reliable contributions behind the arc, then it's Turk's pop song-craft/harmonies doing the heavy lifting of an MVP [think Tony Snell versus Joakim Noah].
In other words, Heart Beats Brain! has enough memorable moments for the highlights shows, even without Snell's corner three: the nothing-but-net hooks of “Dead Beat Dad” and “Can't Stop Dreaming”; the uber-punk transitions of “Bobby the Bullshitter” (“one, two, three, four” at :43); the harmony-laden bridge of Can't Stop Dreaming” (“Had it all back then but I didn’t know / I was full of gratitude but it didn’t show” at 2:25); and the multiple melodies of “It's Never Enough” ( I don’t want to go with you no more …. I don’t need you” from :51-1:17).

Top Shelf Lickers is kind of like a starter bra for fans developing punk tendencies (“stop staring at my punk tendencies!”). Having spruced up tight chord charts with conventionally non-punk instruments on Head First (piano/harmonica), they now melodically mention artists more familiar to the indie scene. After hearing TSL's “Without You,” you go back and realize that neither The Smiths' original nor Billy Bragg's cover of “Jeane” could reach the heights TSL does through the perfected pop punk chorus (“Time ain't on my side when it comes to you” at :53).

But inhering in any EP-length release, is that when something's great, there's never enough of it. Perhaps TSL acknowledges as much when it titled “It's Never Enough,” a song that starts with a standout guitar-permeated intro, but doesn't repeat the riff till the very end. Note to TSL: When you scratch my itch, it's never enough.

*** The author of this review, Leonard Fisher, plays the taiko for the following band:

Artist: Thunder Driver

Artist: Thunder Driver

Though the music industry is not a pure meritocracy, I was still surprised not to have heard of Thunder Driver. And I would have remembered it if I had. The band name itself is like manna from heaven. That is, you'd be hard-pressed to find a better name for a band of this caliber channeling late-70's/early-80's American rock.
With fuel to burn, and song titles like "Down N' Dirty," "License to Rock" and "I Want it Wrong," Bart Goforth's vocals are not far off from AC/DC's, but he tempers it with Motorhead so as not to cloy like Brian Johnson. Lyrics in the Kiss tradition are a great fit here: "If you got it right, then I want it wrong"; "What I hunger for / is rotten to the core"; and "Descending on the Legion Hall / a black leather swarm / no one could believe what they saw."

If every song is a structure, then Thunder Driver is building stadiums to fill, with riffs as rebar. Don't believe me? Call up Spotify, fire up the first half-minutes of "The Bronski" and "Invader's Blues," and check out those riffs and fill-laced chord progressions. Or just listen to the intros of "I Want It Wrong" and "Night of the Gypsy," then tell me you wouldn't rather listen to Thunder Driver than haul out your dusty record collection.

So yes, you'll stream Thunder Driver online; but it's not until you make it to that Legion Hall, with the black leather swarm, that you'll truly learn what it means to be a "Thunderhead."

*** The author of this review, Tony Jordan, plays the shime-jishi daiko for the following band:

Artist: Supercell Mothership

Artist: Supercell Mothership

Supercell Mothership are self-described “post-genre.” Even without a listen, I'd be inclined to believe it since they're gigging with my favorite New World Ancients, a band who straddles genres like an adonis. But listen I did, and tried to nail them down.

And entertaining it was, as I analyzed the two advanced singles, concluding that a “psychedelic rock” label could stick given the guitar of “Golden Flower,” which brought to mind “Venus in Furs” as it deliberately induced daze through plodding paces. Relevant here, Supercell had been kind enough to admit to a few influences, one of them being the Black Angels, who are not only psych-rock, but named after a Velvet Underground song. Add to this Supercell's layered chorus vocals (“Golden Flower”), permeating keyboard arrangements (“Circles”), and a song-stopping middle section injecting space through lovingly off-kilter riffs (“Golden Flower”) – and Supercell clearly descend from Cale, Reed & Co.
In assembling the puzzle though, I ran across a few pieces belonging to another set. The guitar angles wouldn't sound out of place in Interpol/Strokes-era NYC, and the tone/effect recall the spacious guitar work of The xx. So too with the keys: a tone/setting befitting the best of indie music. But at times (“Circles”), the vocals shade to the mainstream rock stylings of Salvatore Paul "Sully" Erna, who is per se awesome, but persona non grata in the hipster circles frequented by the Interpol/xx/Strokes of the world.

All this could confuse the indie press monolith (itself, the new mainstream). But here, where indie still means something, it's the fans who decide. And decide we will. Loudly. As Supercell Mothership psych-rock us into oblivion. (Yeah, I said it ... psychedelic rock.)

*** The author of this review, Earl Woods, plays the piccolo snare for the following band:

Artist: Spinning Red

Artist: Spinning Red

On their self-titled debut EP, Spinning Red proudly display the influences that make them what they are today. What animates this collection, and what makes it eclectic, is that the influences span every decade, or at least the ones that matter, i.e. the guitar decades.

Courtesy of guitarist/founding member Art Rento, the riff intro of Spinning Red's "Stop and Go" pays proper homage to "Purple Haze"-era Hendrix (1967). The 70's was disco, so no one cares. Spinning Red's "The Void" is snarling grunge smoothed out by dark and brooding Staley/Cantrell-caliber harmonies (quite like "What the Hell Have I"); and Alice in Chains entered the recording studio for Facelift in 1989. And on "Judy Two Moons," Spinning Red perfects the ska punk storytelling of Sublime circa 1995's "Date Rape."
Spinning Red is chameleon-like in their ability to blend into whatever guitar genre they're inhabiting. Mark Burd is just as proficient at Weiland rock vocals as he is in owning both of the prototypical punk vocals (on "Judy Two Moons"). And Spinning Red's tightly coiled guitar and rhythm section execute with a professional precision that's matched only by this EP's polished production.

The beginning of "The Void" unfolds with moody strumming joined by haunting vocal harmonies and expressive cymbal work. The calm is devastated by the storm, an angry bass announcing aggressive riffs of distortion. When Rento's riffage relents (2/3rds of the way through), the moody intro is re-introduced, but this time it's altered -- its context darkened by climbing bass (excellent), churning guitars, and spoken word. When the vocal hook resumes, you'll note the expert percussion that amplifies Spinning Red's unique brand of melodic hard rock. (The drums are outstanding throughout this EP.)

But "Judy Two Moons" is the standout track for me. Spinning Red does punk better than most bands devoted to the genre, doing so without resorting to tired power chords. Burd is clearly cognizant of punk phrasing and melody, and double-times his vocals with effects on, slowing down with them off. Spinning Red is just as good at rock (as this EP shows); but it could be that its proficiency in musicianship and song-writing shines more brightly when viewed in light of the limitation that is the two-minute song length.

Whether Spinning Red chooses to focus on punk or rock or to continue with both, there can be no doubt that the guitar decades will forever serve as their inspiration. And in this, we will always be well-served by Spinning Red.

*** The author of this review, Philip Graham, plays the octaban for the following band:

LIVE! Skindance

Artist: Skindance

Skindance's guitarist/singer/frontman John Dilday reminds me of The Melvins' Buzz Osborne, fully inhabiting the duo's rhythmic interplay [of drums/guitar] as he moves, screams, yells, and generally throws himself wherever the guitar's going. But not unlike the girl-with-cigarette on his Dinosaur Jr. T-shirt, I'm sure Dilday could give a fuck what he looks like.

The “rock first, rock always, live and let die” ethos of the best live acts in the visceral rock genres (grunge/punk/garage) was on full display. Check the chronology of this particular Skindance show: Treat your guitar like the punk-bitch it is, break a string. Pull out another guitar, grind it against the amplifier, promptly break two more strings.
Then proceed to nail the blistering vocals and feverish interplay of the recorded versions. In fact, if Dilday and drummer Tony Panizzo were not separated at birth, I'd argue their locked-in rhythms suggest they at least share the same beer bong. High point of the night? A fan requested “FATS,” and Skindance fired it up without hesitation, thrilling us all with Dilday's bloody-raw vocal and that memorable riff.

Given his faculty with melodic verses, Dilday bathed in the pretty stage lights could trick an unsuspecting listener into resting comfortably ensconced in serenity. Word to the wise: Snap the fuck out of it. It's just a prelude to power.

*** The author of this review, Shawn Myers, plays the naqareh for the following band:

Artist: Sean Magwire

Artist: Sean Magwire

With minimal percussion, we are Among the Burning Stars, silent -- alone with beauty. Sean Magwire builds lush environments with layers of vocals, acoustic guitar, cello and piano. Check out Magwire's craftsmanship on "Sun Goes Cold." Piano chords form the sturdy window pane, so keyboard notes can fall like raindrops. Then Magwire doubles his vocals, achieving the same gorgeous tone as Peter Gabriel in his prime. And on the same track, Magwire adds falsetto blends, accenting the song the way Bon Iver does -- Magwire doing so in rounds, no less.
Other contemporary touches include ascending harmonies on "Be Here" (a la Mumford & Sons) and the quick chord changes of "Dear Dear" (Mumford; Philip Philips). "Golden States and Restless Ways" is another example of Magwire's skill. After a second hook capped by the memorable line, "[Katie,] I forgot to write you into my story," we get a perfectly-placed bridge of marching piano.

"Best of Me" is where, lyrically, Magwire shines. Magwire's narrator sings to his ex-[but all too current]love, "Lost myself outside your door...I gave you all I had...Seasons come, and the years go by / I set my course and I close my eyes / 'Cause you are where I want to be / Right there with the best of me / If I go before you leave / Let me know what you have found in me." Sean Magwire is where he belongs: Making us happy with song. He is passionate, and beloved.

*** The author of this review, Jesse Russell, plays the katem for the following band:

Artist: ReDeMeR

Artist: ReDeMeR

The closest analogue to Chicago's Redemer is Death Grips. Putting aside their pretentious Chateau Marmont stint, and the heavy-handedness of the art school documentary memorializing it, Death Grips has brought us splendidly chaotic entries threaded with traces of 90's mainstream hip-hop. At one point, it even looked like Death Grips had a sense of humor. [No dice: It turns out the No Love Deep Web dick pic album art was just further evidence that the band includes one or more self-serious ideologues. But their bold statement was bargained away long ago – the moment the band presumably contracted away their right to stop the music from being streamed on outlets that pixelate the appendage, e.g. Spotify.]
Well, Redemer does have a sense of humor, happily singing about magic fucking turtles, and how these shelled reptiles might just fuck your wife – or save your life. They also have the 90's box checked with “Wrong Turn”'s allusion (at 3:14-3:22) to the intro of MJ/Janet's “Scream.” Simply put, Redemer's musical mosaic is no less gripping for its lack of penis pictures.

Case in point is the dual-blade buzz saw of “Rock Show.” We get the sneering snarl of a David Yao (or a Tasmanian devil); and while this is nothing new (Pissed Jeans made a career out of it), this is the first time I've heard it alternated with the guttural growl of metal. (Redemer's rhythm section toggling between bouncy and beast mode like it's a PlayStation.)

Redemer's Facebook page hints at a breakdown in their musical order – that Redemer has died. It wouldn't surprise me. Sometimes a mass of human entrails comes courtesy of four horses galloping in different directions. But it'll be a hiatus, if that – the music itself reanimates corpses. So let it be said, Redemer makes music that makes zombies. [Heck, I'm convinced the whole of “Wrong Turn” is just that: the mobilizing chants; the carnage that ensues when the magic works; then the charged silence of a world that's both void of human life and full of dormant zombies.]

*** The author of this review, Ernest Foster, plays the maddale for the following band:

Tuesday, March 17, 2015

Artist: The Bad Bees

Artist: The Bad Bees

There are born singers. Singular voices who don't just survive but thrive in musically minimal environments. Not many instruments are as instantly recognizable as the voices of Sam Amidon (“I Wish I Wish”), Antony & the Johnsons (“Kiss My Name”), or Elliott Smith (“Angeles”). They nail it time and again with originals and covers, e.g. Hegarty's “Knockin' on Heaven's Door.” They do more with less, and can bring a tear to an eye with practically anything. (Sufjan Stevens' “John Wayne Gacy, Jr.” is proof of that.)

But there are others. Just as gifted. Maybe by ditching chorus class, they amassed a charisma befitting a particular setting. You can hear it in the rollicking spirit of the White Stripes (“Screwdriver”), the ghost of the hauntingly sinister Portishead (“Cowboys”), or that compelling hybrid of the two – which I term Evil Jack White mode – typified by the Wytches of the world (“Burn Out the Bruise”).
Then there's the middle ground, and that's where the Bad Bees' gifted vocalist puts in work. But before now, I haven't had a reference point for it, and the Bad Bees' song titles don't help. “Grey to Blue” brought to mind Billy Bragg's memorable “From Red to Blue,” but the bright noise was closer to “My Girls” (Animal Collective not Temptations). “Cowboy Coffee” recalled Modest Mouse's “Cowboy Dan,” but only insofar as it is a story-telling song name-checking something cowboy in nature. (And while the execution of both “Cowboy” songs is admirable, description of unlikable main characters will always have a limited capacity to affect real emotion in listeners.)

But after taking in all the Bad Bees' music, I finally found it. The reference point for vocalists who are not so distinct/one-note as to conjure comparison with the Tom Waits of the world (“Filipino Box Spring Hog”), but who cannot abide the self-limitation of indie folk. The comparison can be found in the Cold War Kids (“Go Quietly”). And like those major label indie rockers (an oxymoron?), in Jake Barbadoro the Bad Bees have a vocalist who can belt bluesy rock (“Where Ya Comin' From”), tip over into falsetto (“Supermoon”), or carry the lion's share of songs like “Harvest.”

More than that, because the Bad Bees build musical bridges spanning vast expanses – “Where Ya Comin From” (at 2:53) and “Harvest” (2:23) – the Bad Bees can go where most bands don't. It doesn't matter that “Supermoon” opens like Paul Banks' “Summertime is Coming” then Wavves' “Baseball Cards,” because the song changes. Then changes again. Percussive nuance serving as signposts for several prechoruses (:46/:59/1:12), which set up a slow-burning hook with distinct phases of its own (1:26 then 1:52). But like “Grey to Blue” (sounds/effects at :51), “Supermoon” really shines when the Bad Bees add colorful brush strokes to already sophisticated lines, applying layers of drums (2:18 then 2:32), guitars (at 2:25), and backing vocals (e.g. 2:39).

The standout tracks are “Grey to Blue,” which is what I hope the Bad Bees' “sound” is, as well as “Supermoon,” which showcases song-writing abilities that will keep fans excited regardless of any experimentation beyond that one “sound.” Add to that a singer who can do it all.

This guy could elevate Spotify ads to must-listen streaming.

*** The author of this review, Bobby Washington, plays the lambeg drum for the following band:

Artist: Steve Layman

Artist: Steve Layman

Steve Layman self-describes as “acoustic punk”; and with various manifestations across two releases, these roots show. While working on a second full-length (which is scheduled for a 2015 release date), Layman tides us over with Keepsakes. Across the five song EP, Layman's punk can be heard in the raw acoustic strumming bringing to mind Dinosaur Jr.'s J Mascis' Martin + Me, which is alt rock, and the power vocals of a Seven Mary Three (“Headstrong”), which is grunge – unique touchstones for a singer-songwriter. As for punk on his Hope Is All We Have LP, Layman lyrically deep-dives inconsistencies inhering in the genre's ever-evolving/devolving ethos (“Pigeonholed”), and on “Death & Taxes” attacks that same bankrupt American culture NOFX assails, doing so through rollicking rock that moves and shifts like the best of Cymbals Eat Guitars (“XR”).

It is on this debut full-length that Layman introduces considerable dynamism through the addition of instruments (including Layman's own electric guitar) and musicians – Ron Grieco (drums), Mike Cox (bass), and Tony Bucci (guest vocals). If Hope Is All We Have provides any clue, we can come to expect from Steve Layman albums dimension-adding percussion (:44-53 of “Take You Back”) and bass (3:04 of “Take You Back”); acoustic guitar that paces (:36 of “For The Hills”) and commands attention through intricacy (intro of “Fly Creek”); and an electric guitar that expresses with embellishment, fills (:44 of “Take You Back”), and solos (3:00 of “Irish Guilt”) – not to mention vocal diversity through layering and screamo a la the REM-turn-Thursday of “Fly Creek” at 3:04 (or 1:43 of “Irish Guilt”).
Through melodic mentions in “For the Hills” and “Highway Lines,” we find that Steve Layman shares ancestral relatives with Frightened Rabbit (“Late March, Death March”) and Mark Lanegan (“The River Rise”). And like them, whether alone or with musical friends, Layman often establishes enduring connections with the listener through observation and poetry.

Layman's choice observations are too numerous to go into here, so allow me an illustrative example: a lyric to “Pigeonholed.” After taking on punk's extensive rules governing DIY, Layman applies blunt honesty to both himself and the human condition (“I’ll play with whoever I want, wherever I can / Because chances are we’re all a little out of step / Success is not measured in wealth”) and then: (1) writes lyrical truth (“And you don’t need to start a family to feel love”), (2) but doesn't deliver it, (3) because he subsequently discovered an even more enlightened bon mot (“Procreation's not the only form of creation”).

Likewise, poetic turns of phrase abound, but “Wildflower” provides a perfect example: “You say 'I feel like a wild flower / The ones we found down by the stream / The ones that you picked out for me / On that lazy afternoon / ….I wish the wind would set me free.” And on “Unfit Dullard,” when Layman finds he has “no time for allegory,” he is a man of few words. But still, for ignorant hate-mongers, he summons the most poetic admonition of all:

“Get fucked, you ignorant piece of shit.”

And when Steve Layman says it, it’s making a lot of sense.

*** The author of this review, Howard Patterson, plays the kendang for the following band:

LIVE! Bitter Valentines

Artist: Bitter Valentines
We arrived late to Freddy's, but were fortunate enough to see some of Bitter Valentines' set. A traditional four-piece, all of whom add something to BV's compelling brand of hard rock, the Bitter Valentines thundered through their set on the strength of Der S.'s vocal performance. Although BV is more rock than punk, Der's vocals bring to mind some of the best protest punk singers in the business. Imagine the vocal performances that have you checking Flogging Molly's live calendar; and then get in line for Bitter Valentines instead. Unlike a Flogging Molly show, right now in NYC you could be just footsteps away from a frontman who makes you feel the way he does. (Heck, you might even slam-dance with him, as fans did here.) Never did his howling voice fail him (or us). Not once was I less than moved by his emotive vocal musicianship.

*** The author of this review, Jeremy Jenkins, plays the igihumurizo for the following band:

LIVE! Brooke Fox

Artist: Brooke Fox
It's just Brooke Fox and her guitar on-stage at the Trash Bar. She won't be needing anything else. Her voice will always be enough. Like other singer-songwriters, she'll cover Leonard Cohen's "Hallelujah"; but Brooke's is the rare voice that matches the song's lyrical transcendence. And she has the ability to showcase it right out of the gate, nailing ever higher notes in her first song. That's the pattern Brooke wisely employs in her originals: In chorus, she selects a phrase to repeat, and with every utterance her voice ascends and soars on a talent rarely seen even in New York City. (She'll never encounter a note she can't hit or even top by an octave or two.) So seek her out. You'll never forget her vocal power.

*** The author of this review, Billy Ross, plays the ingoma for the following band:

LIVE! Vultus

Artist: Vultus
Although a few other genres still rattle around their sound, at its best Vultus is a metal-edged rock band with Danzig-like vocals. (You'll understand that as a compliment when you recall that Glenn Danzig founded the Misfits before shooting the video for Mother '93.) Vultus' drummer is superior. He drums better than you, and the band knows it. And they'll let him change time just to prove it, supremely confident he'll lead the way. (It's a blast watching Vultus' bassist contentedly surf that percussive wave.) Vultus is a band bound by chemistry moving together as one organism. With a distinctive voice, and dueling leads swapping riffs and fills, Vultus dispatches rock songs with metal precision.

*** The author of this review, Harry Bennett, plays the goblet drum for the following band:

LIVE! Full Molder

Artist: Full Molder
Full Molder's singer/guitarist/frontman, Jali Lin, has rock swagger to spare with grunge/punk anthems howling for "more more more." And if you wonder whether a drummer can keep time while standing on his drum stool, the answer is yes -- if it's Full Molder's drummer, Animal. Animal is everything a rock drummer should be: shirtless, tatted, he hits the skins hard, and crashes the cymbals early and often. (And his wingspan and hair makes the kit appear small, toy-like.) Animal aims for a high degree of difficulty and for the most part nails it (exception: cymbal casualty). Rocking out to Animal is bassist Rob who uses all 24 frets of his gorgeous cutaway bass, never settling for root notes, but not letting them get lost in the flourish. Full Molder is intimidatingly cool. But with their music, they invite you to bash it out with them. You leave spent, convinced you belong. And that's the secret of any good rock band. Full Molder is rock 'n' roll as it should be.

*** The author of this review, Bruce Sanders, plays the dollu for the following band:

LIVE! The Nymphidels

Artist: The Nymphidels
The Nymphidels are a Providence, Rhode Island duo with a cool name and an even cooler female front, Jess Moroney. Jess truly rocks out on vocals and electric guitar to Pat Flanagan's rollicking drum beats. As for musical style, the Nymphidels are the direct descendents of Liz Phair and Veruca Salt. The duo could add a guitar/vocal, freeing Jess to rock us even harder. But if it would diminish her alt-rock swagger - I mean, at all - I wouldn't change a thing.

*** The author of this review, Nicholas James, plays the dholak for the following band:

Artist: Eliza & the Organix

Artist: Eliza & the Organix

Eliza & the Organix self-describe as a rock group with foundations in jazz and blues. I don't know about the “rock” part, though “Fanciful You” (at 1:30) touches on the same guitar tones as Van Halen's “Top Jimmy.”

But jazz and blues do permeate E&O's The Organix Experience. Whether it be the jazz-cool instrumentation of Erik Snow (drums, percussion) and Kristen Tivey (alto saxophone), or Eliza's electric guitar licks that span jazz (“I Just Wanna Dance”) and blues (“Fanciful You”), the music showcases a powerful vocal dripping with charisma – Eliza's chief instrument, attracting a serious suite of talented jazz musicians.
Although E&O invokes jazz, it would be unfair to compare Eliza with the Billie Holidays of the genre. But the voice of Eliza, strong and clear – especially on the verses of E&O's “The Autumn Has Arrived” – does withstand comparison to the best in female-fronted indie folk/rock acts: “Let Me Have This” brings to mind Karen O of the Yeah Yeah Yeahs; and “Cold Comfort” recalls Fiona Apple.

Better still, just like Jewel, Eliza can go either thick or thin on vocals. That is, unlike other one-note singers (including the aforementioned notables), someone like Jewel freshens up the passion-power play, breaking it up with the occasional wispy vocal delivery. Eliza also brings to bear both singing styles; her reedy-thin mode operates in the hooks of “Lullaby for Fools” and “Autumn,” and is akin to that of nature folkie, Laura Veirs.

E&O's bio cops to quirkiness, and this might be the only subjective element the listener will have to weigh in on. Because the beginning of “The Bazaar” might be Ella, but the rest of it (starting at :37) is all Eliza – Eliza with a “z.” (Speaking of: Liza Minnelli could also sell this song segment – jazz hands and all.) But the stop-and-start song construction, along with its monkey-centric lyrics, recalls the lovely “freak folk” harpist, Joanna Newsom-Samberg. Lyrically speaking, “Fanciful You” includes such gems as “you bring your baby to term” and “you eat your Snickers bar with a knife and fork,” which just might be a Seinfeld reference, and could by itself place E&O into Camp Quirky.

Whether Eliza continues to find her fun lyrically, or instead opts to marshal that idiosyncrasy through complex song construction a la “freak folk” standout Tune-Yards (just discovered “freak folk” is a genre that also boasts indie stalwarts Animal Collective and Sufjan Stevens), E&O will remain a band to watch. Because night or day, regardless of weather, Eliza's vocal will be the shining beacon for any direction E&O chooses to take.

*** The author of this review, Willie Ward, plays the dhimaya for the following band:

Monday, March 16, 2015

Artist: The Prairie Ghosts

Artist: The Prairie Ghosts

The Prairie Ghosts are something to behold -- a thing of beauty, even. While a number of songs on Habit are night blues, it's the unexpectedly chill daytime road trip feeling we get from songs like "Rust," "Habit" and "Devil Dance" that capitalize on the Prairie Ghosts' beautifully-toned electric guitar and fascinating organ/bass lines.
It's this truly American brand of song-craft that sets the tone for lyrical highlights such as "Now it's time to move on / But I can't say I don't love her / There's only one thing that helps me / That I have discovered / Ain't gonna pick up the pieces / I'll just leave them behind." (Usually their lyrics are a study in contrasts: "I've got the motive, baby / you've got the means"; "You heard what I said / but not what I think"; "You give me what I want / but not what I need"; and the entire hook of "Rust.")

Luckily, whether the music runs dark or light, Michael Shehan's richly textured baritone carries compelling songs that, like the band, are built to last. Notably, a song like "Vagabondage" hints at a potential that's even more complex and alluring -- rarely is such musical sophistication heard in a genre known for song titles that include "vagabond" and "bondage" or, as here, both ("Vagabondage"). Perhaps unlike that song title then, The Prairie Ghosts are aptly named, and as good as they come.

*** The author of this review, Gerald Richardson, plays the tof for the following band:

Artist: Phil Jacobson

Artist: Phil Jacobson

On the Love Right Now EP, we hear the smooth vocal of Phil Jacobson as it nimbly moves over expert supporting musicianship produced by Grammy-nominated Dan Warner. Although we hear hints of Michael Buble (phrasing), Hanson (harmonies) and Justin Timberlake (timbre), Jacobson's music is closer akin to Jason Mraz with melodies that, while lighthearted and playful, are not without substance.
For example, "Don't Let Me Leave" features Jacobson capably dueling with Taylor Byrd on acoustic guitar; they're joined by the incomparable organ of Peter Wallace (excellent throughout this EP), and we're instantly transported to that delightfully chill place first inhabited by Looking Glass' "Brandy" (who's a fine girl).

Popular as the genre is, Jacobson will face some fierce competition; but he's already halfway there with quality production, and instrumental flourishes that are minimally employed to maximum effect. The trick will be fitting his solid vocal choruses with lyrics that are not only music-appropriate, but that also create nostalgic or romantic spaces that are novel or at least definite -- with John Mayer, it was the halls of his high school, or the deep sea of blankets on his lover's bed. (In contrast, some of "Don't Let Me Leave" has Jacobson's narrator on a plane.)

Without a doubt, with his considerable talent and support, we'll be hearing from Phil Jacobson for many years to come.

*** The author of this review, Jonathan Murphy, plays the tabl for the following band:

Artist: Palmflower

Artist: Palmflower

The Breeders put on a clinic with Mountain Battles. Songs like “German Studies” and “Istanbul,” “Here No More” and “We're Gonna Rise,” taught solitary singers dimensionality through vocal harmony and interplay. But that Ohio-to-Chicago signal seemed a bit lost in transmission. Until Palmflower. Like the Sisters Deal, Palmflower's vocals-first approach conveys considerable charisma and charm. And though “I Write Myself Notes” shares the same gravity-defying propulsion as the Breeders' “Cannonball,” Palmflower cannot be relegated to the limits of alt-rock.

Palmflower resides where ambient and dream pop intersect. The music of Palmflower is all loose beauty – amorphous, atmospheric, ethereal. Beholding the wonder of Palmflower's gift is to re-train our eye permanently towards artistry. Before, we were content to look out the window; now, nothing less than the stained glass of Gothic cathedrals will do. Palmflower calls itself “future church music.” Indeed.
Palmflower uses all manner of affected guitar, organ and vocal to transform ordinary instruments into lush soundscapes. With “Buried Under,” and not unlike the Verve's A Storm in Heaven, Palmflower renders for us a cavernous space reverberating with echoing guitars, vocals and sound droplets (which gather into puddles for us to jump into or trip out on). Similarly, and despite a hypnotizing vocal lead, it's the descending background vocals of “Skeletons Can't Swim” that streak the night with color like trailing fireworks.

Palmflower's song-writing mastery is evident on “Newlywed Lovers,” which features a slow-rolling introduction ultimately cutting drums and adding bass to begin the song proper at :39. But it is the tension/release (1:05/1:19) of “Day After Dead”'s pre-chorus/chorus that reaches the high bar of “intuitive pop” Palmflower sets for itself. Few artists (save for maybe Atlas Sound or Wild Nothing) reach such dizzying heights.

And for those convinced Neil Young's “Like a Hurricane” is per se perfect, let's keep an open mind. Because Palmflower did it: They did the song justice, and may even be the preferred drug of choice for Neil Young junkies. The trick? Letting the lyrics shine through. Because as emotive a voice as Young's is, it is also pained, and there cannot be two focal points. There's only one eye of the hurricane, and it took Palmflower (with pulsing organ and minimalist guitar accent) to finally introduce metaphorically appropriate calm.

Perhaps Palmflower will continue adding layers a la Spiritualized. Or maybe they'll just keep charming us with their Breeders-esque vocal superiority. Regardless, it's the first “gospel pop” I've heard. And it is good.

*** The author of this review, Joe Cook, plays the daul for the following band:

Sunday, March 15, 2015

Artist: OK Sara

Artist: OK Sara

OK Sara has heard Mumford & Sons, this we know. (There's a joke at the expense of these folk-rock exemplars-turn-scapegoats.) But all that second-hand listening didn't sink in – I mean, at all. OK Sara instead subsisted on a steady diet of Dinosaur Jr. (hear “Feel the Pain” in “Hey”), The Pixies (“Gigantic” and “Where Is My Mind” in “Boyager”), Modest Mouse (“Polar Opposite” in “Moving Castle”; “The World at Large” in “Env Chem”), Bush (“Glycerine” in “Boyager”), blink-182 (“Dammit” in “Boyager”), Weezer (“Death and Destruction” in “Brokly”) and Titus Andronicus (in OK's “Tumblrkrbrzkr”).
OK Sara uses the bass guitar to introduce songs replete with melodic guitar accents and Chicago references. These set up a lyrical cleverness previewed by that Mumford joke (on “Try”): “I'd rather listen to Mumford and Son[s] than another fucking word out of your mouth / Be careful what you're drinking, baby, I don't want you to stain your pretty blouse.” OK Sara turns that scathing indictment inward on “Tumblrkrbrzkr”: “I went through 37 pages of your Tumblr before I realized you're not for me / I'm not in art school / You won't think it's cool / To stay home and watch TNG.”

Just as Mark Hoppus' tale of a young adult fling was leavened with prank phone calls and ADD-inspired TV viewing (“What's My Age Again”), OK Sara mixes and matches both macro and micro elements, with entertainingly original results. To wit, on “Brokly,” after a blissfully lethargic intro that contrasts nicely with the uptempo open of “Try,” OK Sara gets Chicago-lovers all aroused with a loving allusion to the Berwyn/Bryn Mawr Jewel-Osco. Our narrator ditches a bug-ridden produce purchase, expecting the inevitable ants to carry it away. After speculating the ants' queen will just as soon feed on the mites' carcasses as the broccoli, the narrator proceeds to catalog his own concerns, both personal and dietary: “When I die, I hope they don't find me / Don't wanna be eaten, 'cause I doubt that's vegan.” I love that: a concern for dietary purity even in the face of death. (Also behold the macro/micro of interscholastic sports/internet dating on "OKS II": "Coach says I won't win my match / At least I got this match for free.")

With a charismatic vocal, minimalist guitar embellishment, and high-minded lyrics documenting the normal life, OK Sara's Mutt Tracks LP is well worth your time.

*** The author of this review, Arthur Morris, plays the daf for the following band:

Artist: The New World Ancients

Artist: The New World Ancients

Wow. The opening track of Temporal Beast, "Eternal Return," had me thinking my listening experience would be Bono singing over Depeche Mode -- U2's "Hold Me, Thrill Me, Kiss Me, Kill Me," in other words. Then "Shapeshifter" started, and the vocal recalled Tomahawk's Mike Patton and Jesus Lizard's David Yow. But then "Word to the Unwise" began, the vocal was a dead ringer for Talking Heads' David Byrne ("Progress is messy / But success is sexy / Progress is necessary / And excess is customary"), and I gave up trying to classify them altogether. So I just enjoyed.

The New World Ancients rock at the intersection of experimental and progressive. The musicians involved are studio-caliber professionals that give a song exactly what it needs and nothing more. But all of that would be just showing off if the parts didn't mesh. And boy do they ever: on a track like "Two Sirens," the band's proficiency couldn't be more clear.
Not unlike English progressive rockers, Mansun, TNWA writes songs that move the listener, have him convinced he's heard something original, and leave a lasting impact rivaled only by the band's ambition to do something completely new. As the track unfolds, we get a spaghetti western with its bending acoustic guitar notes and harmonica. But what comes next? Clanging guitar not often heard outside of Sonic Youth noise rock. The sinew connecting these dramatic scenes is a falsetto resembling Mansun's Paul Draper or even Radiohead's Thom Yorke. Actually, this song, with its vocal, guitar tones, and second-half jam, could have made it onto Radiohead's seminal OK Computer.

On "Caesar!," and like Radiohead's "Life in a Glasshouse," TNWA brings the horns; but these horns are confirmation of the Squirrel Nut Zippers' notion that there exists a jazzy night club in hell. On "In Defense of Man or the Destroyer Returns," after prominent bass lines -- and yes, the rhythm section is so good that TNWA can and does build songs around it -- we get skilled vocal phrasing of excellent lyrics, "Fear / Is a powerful emotion / It does wonders to a man's otherwise reasonable notions of plausibility / And as for me, I do, I do, I feel a certain responsibility / For the work my hands have done." (And then we get gentle, precious singing about birds, which sets up more hard rock.)

Simply put, TNWA is good. Really good. And so again I say wow.

*** The author of this review, Douglas Edwards, plays the dabakan for the following band: