Saturday, February 5, 2011

REVIEW: I Was a King - Old Friends

Been on a bit of a power-pop kick, and this definitely scratches the itch...

The four P's of Robert Pollard (pop, punk, prog and psych) are elements I look for in rock records... When I started counting P's on Old Friends, pop and psych were reached in the first few seconds... as for prog, there are several Captain Beefheart-style horn freakouts that add to the tension and offset the sweetness of the vocals and guitar melodies... I don't know about punk, unless a Guided by Voices connection fits the bill. Song two, "Echoes", starts out as an almost note-for-note copy of the opening of "Game of Pricks". Man, if you're going to sound like someone, you can sell me a lot of records sounding like Alien Lanes-era GbV.

I really like the drumming on this record; it anchors the sound nicely, inasmuch as the songs on this record can be considered "anchored"... there are definitely jazz elements here, but not so much that Old Friends loses its focus as a pop record. The vocals are a bit understated (honestly, I don't pay a lot of attention to the lyrics so the fact that they're buried in the mix a bit does not bother me in the least). The guitars play well together, and there's a bit of piano on the beat as well as organ and the aforementioned horn parts to add variety and reset the songs here and there.

Finally, there are songs on here that definitely call to mind Apples in Stereo and there are songs that remind me of one of my favorite psych-pop bands ever: Oranger. Oranger, wherever you are, here's hoping you are planning a comeback, that you get a copy of this record and that it inspires you. I certainly am enjoying it.

Video for opening track "The Wylde Boys":

LINK: I Was a King at Sounds Familyre (3 MP3s available)

LINK: I Was a King Myspace

Friday, February 4, 2011

Friday Old Stuff: The Wailers

Since Sunday, February 6 would be Bob Marley's 66th birthday, today's Old Stuff post will focus on Marley's early career with the Wailers. Marley not only is a legendary reggae star, but may have been the most charismatic pop performer in history. But while known for the themes of freedom, militant advocacy for the downtrodden and universal love conveyed in the songs that made him world famous, the Wailers started down a different path. And until recently, the early Wailers' material wasn't well known because it wasn't released outside of Jamaica.

Click on this link to listen to one of their earliest recordings while you continue to read:

If you didn't know it was the Wailers, you'd probably guess that it was a Motown act.

The group was formed in '63 by Marley, Peter Tosh, Bunny Livingston (later known as Bunny Wailer), Junior Braithwaite, Beverly Kelso and Cherry Smith. Originally they called themselves the Teenagers, then the Wailing Rudeboys, and then the Wailers. Initially, the lead vocals belonged to Braithwaite (who had a smoother voice than Marley). But Braithwaite and Smith left the group in '64 and Marley became the lead. The group recorded for Dodd's Studio One until '66, then disbanded. After a brief stint working in a factory in America, Marley returned to Jamaica and reformed the Wailers with Tosh and Livingston.

Here is an early song with Braithwaite on vocals. An added bonus is the great Ernest Ranklin is playing guitar:

The music of the Wailers in the Studio One period was vastly different from the later music performed by the Wailers or any of Marley, Tosh and Livingston in their solo careers. As noted in last week's reggae post, that time period of Jamaican music was dominated by local acts putting their own spin on American R&B and soul, and the Wailers were no exception. Some of the songs reflected the ska beat and instrumentation, and some reflected the transition to rocksteady. At that point, they would have been happy to be scooped up by a Motown or Stax talent scout. And the band dressed the part, in matching suits and short haircuts.

Here is one of Bob's earlier compositions. It appeared on several later albums, but this version reflects the ska beat of the pre-rocksteady period:

The reformed Wailers became interested in the Rastafari faith. That faith, the political and social climate in Jamaica, shifting personal dynamics and other musical influences influenced the change in their musical approach. But that music, and the story about how Joe Higgs taught the Wailers to be a band, is for another day.

The Soul Corner: Johnny Taylor - Who's Making Love

This week's soul offering is the Stax classic "Who's Making Love" by Johnny Taylor.

And if you are thinking damn, that backing band sounds good, you would be correct. It's Booker T and the MGs, with Isaac Hayes playing additional keyboards. Check out the late great Al Jackson Jr on the drums.

Love the all out soul scream at about 2:38 just before the end. And this green suit is awesome; I want one and know that you do too.

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Let's Shake Hands With The White Stripes

As the Detroit native here, it pains me to report that The White Stripes issued this statement today:


So that's that. But we still have this:

The White Stripes leave behind a great legacy. They had some very successful records, many good songs, and were a terrific live band, kicking up quite a bit of racket for a duo. I've admired them in no small part because they carry on the Detroit traditions - blues and soul based rock'n'roll, edgy, intense, but also unabashedly entertaining with a flair for visuals and performance.

Jack White will probably stay stay busier than ever with a variety of projects. I even suspect his most distinguished work is ahead of him. He's a great talent. And Meg White could surprise everyone and have some terrific hit song on her own down the road, like Kim Deal did with the Breeders after the Pixies broke up.

And say what you will about Meg as a drummer, but this band had some real magic. I saw them many years ago in a club, and I still remember the entire show, including the surprising closing song, a blisteringly intense cover of Bob Dylan's "Lovesick", which most of the crowd being half my age did not recognize.

And few radio hit songs of the last 10 years rocked like this one did:

So, to the White Stripes, I say thank you. Good luck to both of you in your future endeavors.

Noise, Glorious Noise: The Jesus and Mary Chain, The Manhattan Love Suicides, and Crystal Stilts

One rock sound that rarely fails to elicit a positive reaction from me is a buzzy, distorted, jangly-clangy wall of guitar sound wrapped around a pop song. It is simultaneously musical and decadent and, ultimately, immediate and alive. And for me, the best execution of that style is by The Jesus and Mary Chain. Formed in Glasgow in 1984 by brothers William and Jim Reid, TJAMC sought to fuse the brooding muscle and debauched swagger of The Velvet Underground and The Stooges with the pop sensibilities of Phil Spector.

The pop core of the songs is evident when we are treated to an acoustic version. Here is a stripped down demo for Taste of Cindy:

If you like what you hear of TJAMC from their most famous albums, Psychocandy and Darklands, I highly recommend their collection of b-sides and demos, The Power of Positive Thinking.

The style of TJAMC has been resurrected by recent bands. The Manhattan Love Suicides had an all too brief recording career. Formed in 2006 in Leeds, UK, The Manhattan Love Suicides didn't last until the end of the decade. Their farewell present is the compilation album Burnt Out Landscapes, which contains 27 songs.

And my favorite TMLS song in honor of the founder of this blog:

Fortunately, there are other bands still recording the glorious noise, including Danish expats The Raveonettes, New Zealand's Surf City, and Texas band Ringo Deathstarr (all of whom will be covered in future posts). However, one that you may not have heard of and deserves a listen is New York Band Crystal Stilts. Admittedly, Crystal Stilts probably edges more to the shoegaze segment of the spectrum, but enough of their songs ring the glorious noise bell for my tastes.

REVIEW: Apex Manor – The Year of Magical Drinking

I’m not inclined to doubt the sentiment expressed by the album title, given that one song mentions being “four fingers deep in the mason jar”, which covers the drinking part. As for the magical part, this record works great as a whole when you have time to listen all the way through, and as a collection of terrific individual power-pop songs, when maybe you don’t. That’s a deadly combination, and it may be the result of magical drinking, who am I to say?

Apex Manor is a guy named Ross Flournoy, and this album is his follow-up to the two albums he did with his previous band The Broken West. As big a fan as I was of The Broken West, this album is actually better than either of those records. I suppose it’s more “mature”, with a bit more variety in song structure… but my favorite songs are still the ones like “Teenage Blood”, which starts out with a whopping drumbeat and throws in a ripping guitar solo, “Party Line” with wonderful jangling guitars, and “Southern Decline”, with more propulsive drumming and a great guitar lead.

I think it’s valid to compare this Apex Manor record to Wilco discs like Summerteeth, and even Being There… several of the uptempo songs really remind me of “I Got You (at the End of the Century)” and “Outtasite”, where the more contemplative songs with relationship-inspired lyrics really are reminiscent of Summerteeth. Think I’m imagining it? There’s a song in which Flournoy says: “I’m not an easy jar to open”! I’m also reminded of Lloyd Cole’s work on albums like Rattlesnakes, and I mean that in the best way possible.

Throughout, it builds toward the last track, "Coming To", the title of which may represent a bit of self-revelation. Apparently the year post-band-breakup was a tough one for Flournoy. But by the time we get to "Coming To", it's rolling along with great guitars, some "inside joke" lyrics, and even cowbell! At 35 minutes, with plenty of hooks, Flournoy has made a real good record, a great start to 2011.

Here's the video for "My My Mind":

Apex Manor - My My Mind from Merge Records on Vimeo.

For a limited time, you can stream the whole album here.

Monday, January 31, 2011

New Sounds of Scotland -- Part 3: Butcher Boy, Lenzie Moss, and Popup

Butcher Boy doesn't fit the template for most emerging indie bands. One obvious difference is the members of the group are a bit older, perhaps less edgy in appearance, than many bands clawing to stay alive in today's music world. But I'd like to think that most of us are accepting of such differences, as it is the music that counts. Still, the music of Butcher Boy differs from that of most young bands as well. There is a maturity in the lyrics and performances that underscores the abilities of the band and, more importantly, the contributions of frontman and songwriter, John Blain Hunt. Hunt is a former dance club DJ and published poet, who decided to try his hand as a songwriter and performer. The result has been two albums -- Profit in Your Poetry in 2007and React or Die in 2009. A new album is scheduled for release in 2011. Make no mistake, this is sensitive stuff; while the instrumentation may be full, and even lush at times, the lyrics are the focal point. While other bands, such as Belle & Sebastian inhabit this territory, Butcher Boy more closely resembles The Tindersticks or the Smiths than their Glasgow counterparts, B&S.

From React or Die, "A Better Ghost":

From Profit In Your Poetry, "Girls Make Me Sick":

Butcher Boy Myspace Page

Another new group is Lenzie Moss. The band is the project of Finlay Macdonald, who spent stints with Music and Movement, BMX Bandits, Teenage Fanclub and Speedboat. Macdonald also is an instructor in the music industry program of a Glasgow area college. The relatively few songs available for me to review at this point don't permit much useful analysis, so I'll just observe that the songs I've heard are good songs for late night sipping on a favorite beverage. The Lenzie Moss song embedded below appears to tell a story of a time in Glasgow when the writer was younger and out on the town.

Free Download of Song at Bandcamp

Lenzie Moss Myspace Page

And now we'll pick up the pace a bit. The third band is Popup, also from Glasgow. An indication of the difficulty of emerging as a band is that the song "Lucy What Are You Trying to Say", which is featured in the fun video below, was a single release (and critically well received) in 2006. They played SxSW in 2008 and are going back this year.

Popup Myspace Page

Popup Website

WYMA (HL's) favorite music of 2010.

Wow, it’s the last day of January, and John asked us to put together a 2010 list of favorites two weeks ago. Sorry ‘bout that John. I thought 2010 was a really quality year for music, so I was a little surprised when I compiled my Top 20 list and only got 17 albums. I think a year-end best-of list shouldn’t be a ranking of the albums you bought, where albums you bought but really didn’t knock you over get on there because, you know, you’re running out of albums to list. So this is the list of all the albums this year that I really, really liked.
1. Titus Andronicus, The Monitor – I love everything about this record. It is loud as hell. There’s lots of cussing and songs about the drinking. It’s literate but not pretentiously literary. Patrick Stickles constantly reminds me of 1984 Paul Westerberg. It’s totally overindulgent. I think belongs in the canon of truly great records that we’ll crank to at least 6 while we sit in our nursing homes doing fermentation experiments with last week’s applesauce. Yes, it’s that great.
2. The Walkmen, Lisbon – Where Titus Andronicus are snotty and sweaty, the Walkmen are suave and urbane. This is a collection of beautiful songs; beautifully played and sung, beautifully recorded. Although I must confess to liking the rocking songs like ‘Angela Surf City’ best, I cannot resist the gauzy barroom conceits like ‘Stranded’ either. And the singer’s name is Hamilton Leithauser, and they’re on Fat Possum Records. Hamilton Leithauser? Fat Possum? Remember when Rawly Eastwick was a relief pitcher for the Big Red Machine? You don’t? Never mind.
3. Kylesa, Spiral Shadow – I can’t believe there’s all this great metal music coming out of Georgia. They’ve got Mastodon, Baroness, and Harvey Milk, all of which have put out great records the past couple of years, but without a doubt two of my two favorite metal albums during that time are this one and Kylesa’s 2009 effort ‘Static Tensions’. These songs aren’t from the metal template – they’re generally around 3 minutes of fevered squall. They’re structured more like Fugazi songs than Isis songs but more primal (two drummers!). Anyway, there’s something in the water in Georgia. No wonder Mikheil Saakashvili thinks he can kick Vladimir Putin’s butt. Check out the opener:

4. Sun Kil Moon, Admiral Fell Promises – I’ll admit it, I’m an unrepentant Mark Kozelek fanboy. Seriously, he could remake this album, call it ‘Admiral Farts Promises’ and I’d pre-order two copies. I also will admit that I was disappointed when I heard that this album wasn’t recorded with a band, but rather was pretty much unaccompanied Kozelek on a nylon string classical guitar. I love the live solo records he puts out every two or three weeks, but I miss the full band sound that’s so necessary to the genius of songs like ‘Salvador Sanchez’and ‘Tonight the Sky.’ This album, though, works in every way, and in some ways is a departure for Kozelek. The subtle multitracking (especially of the vocals) and the stunning flamenco sketches combine with the expected stuff – the sepia-tinted place descriptions (matching much of the art of his album covers) and the expansive compositions – to form something utterly gripping. And like all excellent records, the more you come back to it, the more you take away. It’s quiet and contemplative music, but in no way can it be considered easy listening.
5. Superchunk, Majesty Shredding – I think Superchunk was the greatest rock and roll band of the 90s. I also think that if they hadn’t taken the better part of the last 10 years off, and instead had made a few more albums like this, they’d be making a play for best band of whatever that last decade is called as well. This sounds like the follow-up to “Here’s Where the Strings Come In”, which to me was right where they were hitting their stride. I think it was my buddy Slainte Joe who described them best by saying they write perfect pop songs and then crank the absolute shite out of them.
6. Vampire Weekend, Contra – This is the second album on my list (along with my number 1 above) from Brit label XL Recordings, so a congratulatory bollocks to them, or whatever. When you peel away the layers of studio varnish, this actually might be a stronger set of tunes than the first album. I saw them live at an amphitheater with a terrific PA system a couple of months ago and was blown away at how great they sound when simply played (there was a little bit being piped in, but not a ton, as far as I could tell). This is a great band with a unique musical vision.
7. High on Fire, Snakes for the Divine – Where I applauded Kylesa above for their compact metal songs, Matt Pike on the other hand really needs supertanker-sized songs to create a proper framework for his epic (and I’m going for a non-hipster employment of the word here) guitar work. That’s not to say he can’t work his magic in a short song. Look at ‘Rumors of War’ for goodness sakes. The songs on ‘Snakes . . .’ are mostly longform by comparison, though, and they make for an exhilarating experience. Why they’re no longer on Relapse Records is something I can’t figure out. Oh yeah, and there’s also the moment on ‘Frosthammer’ where the music stops and then restarts with Pike bellowing ‘FROSTHAMMER!’ four times before the lead starts. Hearing this has caused my 9 year old son to begin to believe in the devil that I’ve been telling him about for years; you know, the one that watches him night and day, but especially at night, waiting for a chance to drag the little guy to the basement of hell. It’s musical behavior therapy.
8. Far, At Night We Live – I was really surprised at how good this album turned out. They hadn’t been heard from since 1998, the year we got System of a Down. They had become what no real rock and roll aspirant wants to become, i.e., an obscure but significant point of influence for a raft of bands, including a lot of pretty bad ones. This album is a lot closer to ‘Water & Solutions’ than ‘Tin Cans With Strings for You’, in that it’s got a lot of quality pop sensibility to go with the bonecrunching bar chords, and Jonah Matranga sings more than he screams (although he’s got a great voice for either).
9. Ted Leo & the Pharmacists, The Brutalist Bricks – I swear I saw the title of this album and almost resolved not to buy it. Ted Leo’s one of the few people whose lyrics I actually listen to for content, but I am not interested in a rock album that is self-consciously concerned with aesthetics as a lyrical subject matter. Thankfully, if I remember correctly, I went into the record store with fifteen bucks burning a hole in my pocket, didn’t find what I went there for, and bought this instead because Ted’s an ND guy, after all. Turns out I should have known better than to draw such conclusions in the first place. He’s really at the top of his game here, with pretty much every song perfectly blending his east coast punk edge with another of his inexhaustible supply of Elvis Costello-like pop hooks.
10. No Age, Everything in Between – While I still probably like ‘Nouns’ better, in a way this album is more exciting because it shows a band working very hard at developing a kind of musical vision. They don’t seem content to be lumped in with the vanguard of lo-fi punks hitting the scene right now (although as can be seen from some of the entries on this list, I’d have no problem with that myself). So while they’re still cranking out great songs (“Fever Dreaming” has to be one of the best songs of 2010), they seem to be taking pains both instrumentally and in the production process to create an overarching ambience to the album. Some may find that to be pointless noodling. I think it’s great – or at least it really works here.

11. Deftones, Diamond Eyes – This is the best the Deftones have sounded since ‘White Pony’.
12. Male Bonding, Nothing Hurts – Check out the videos of this band that I posted a week or so ago. Well played and full speed ahead.
13. The National, High Violet – Another great effort by what’s probably my favorite band of the last five or ten years. I ranked it here because of the band’s five full length albums, this would fall at number 4 or 5 for me.
14. Robert Pollard, We All Got Out of the Army – I can’t keep up with all the Pollardiana that’s been steadily streaming out of Dayton since the demise of Guided by Voices, but this is not one of those records where there are only five songs you’d add to your Pollard playlist. This is front-to-back solid – sounds like a less anthemic ‘Isolation Drills’.
15. Wolf Parade, Expo ’86 – This looks like it will be the triumphant last hurrah of the combined efforts of Spencer Krug and Dan Boeckner. They were my favorite of the bands to come out of the Montreal scene of the early to mid-00s. Bands that have two accomplished singer-songwriters (Uncle Tupelo and Husker Du spring to mind here) tend not to last too long.
16. Wavves, King of the Beach – I like this album a lot more than his first, which is saying something. Much I’ve read in the music media has portrayed Nathan Williams as an ornery prima donna, but I saw Wavves play the Cat’s Cradle this past weekend, and he came across as a very likeable guy who was trying hard to play a great set. He succeeded well beyond my expectations. By the way, this is another great album brought to us by Oxford, Mississippi’s Fat Possum records.
17. Ty Segall, Melted – Ty is not just another California noise punk – not that there’s anything wrong with that. If you like your pop music drenched in feedback and distortion you need this album. Although I’m partial to the tune “Four Score and Seven” by Titus Andronicus, a solid case can be made that ‘Girlfriend’ from this album is the song of the year. This is from the great Memphis label Goner Records, home to the sadly departed Jay Reatard and the happily whoopass Eddy Current Suppression Ring (John has given them some much-deserved praise on this site) among other great garage warriors. Here's 'Girlfriend'. Turn it up.

I promise that these are not the only 17 albums released last year that I actually bought or listened to. There are some that I bought and didn’t fall in love with, including a few that were on most year-end lists you’ve probably seen. There were others – LCD Soundsystem and Deerhunter come to mind – that I plan to get but haven’t gotten around to yet. There look to be some promising albums on the 2011 horizon from the likes of the Twilight Singers, Rival Schools, maybe Mastodon, and I’m keeping my fingers crossed for a new Bloody Hollies release. So I’m hoping I get to 20 on next year’s list.