May 172010

Clearsignals, Stars Lost Your Name

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Artist: Clearsignals
Album: Stars Lost Your Name
Label: N/A
Release Date: Wednesday, 2010.3.24
Score: 9/10

So you really need to go check out this album. It’s called Stars Lost Your Name and the artist, John C. Worsley, bills himself for this album as Clearsignals. The album is full of spacey electronica that drifts seamlessly between the atmospheric and the tribal, without ever losing any interest or energy.

The album as a whole is remarkable in many ways, not the least of which is its pacing and arrangement, which take the listener from warped atmospherics (“cygnus ob2-12”), through rambling electronica (“bellatrix”) and a single melancholy vocal track (“beta lyrae”) and back again. The final track, “Eta Centauri” feels like the soundtrack to an infinitely long walk through a desert wasteland on an aggressively alien planet. And I mean that in the best way possible.

It’s a beautiful, haunting, cohesive work. It feels like music meant to accompany something, though I don’t really know what that something might be. I can say that it serves admirably as music to write to, as long as what you’re writing is strange and introspective. It also works great for coding to as long as the code you’re writing is arcane enough that you won’t find it in any patterns book.

However you feel about electronic music, the album is worth a listen. If you’re already a fan of electronic music and need music to chill to, or just something to soundtrack the work at hand, then this will definitely fit the bill. It’s at turns wistful, melancholy, plodding, and spacey, and the overall album flows naturally while still being rich and well-crafted enough that it never gets boring.

In short, it’s definitely worth a listen.

Apr 282010

The Shondes, My Dear One

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Artist: The Shondes
Album: My Dear One
Label: Fanatic Records
Release Date: Tueday, 2010.5.4
Score: 9.5/10

I’ve often harped on the importance of Sophomore albums. They’re easily important as first and last albums, and perhaps even more so if the band wants to have any sort of longevity. So it’s my pleasure to say that the second album from The Shondes is good. Really damned good.

Loyal readers (there have to be at least a few of you) will remember that The Shondes released one of my favorite albums of 2008. That debut (Red Sea) was one of the most original and important albums of the year. It was also awesomely fun and rocked pretty damned hard.

Well, The Shondes’ sophomore effort is about to hit the market and, thanks to the good folks at Fanatic Records, I’m happy to report that I’ve gotten my hot little hands on a copy. And it’s flat-out awesome. It’s every bit as excellent as their first album.

The instrumentation and pacing of the new album are much as they were in the last one. Energetic, mid-tempo rock songs with a lyrical focus and plenty of tasty instrumental hooks. (For the record, the violin/guitar/bass/drums instrumentation works far better than I would ever have imagined.)

The Shondes themselves claim that it’s a break up album. But I genuinely think it’s more than that. I think it speaks to a deeper, more visceral human experience. While most of the songs are framed in terms of the end of a relationship, I think that it’s really more of a heartbreak album. Heartbreak is a more universal human experience, and I think it’s one that My Dear One speaks to well extremely well. Songs like “Nothing Glows” powerfully evoke the sick, sad greying effect of heartbreak. The notion that one’s “bruises don’t turn black and blue” is a particularly effective image for the fact that it shows just how dulling heartbreak can be.

The lyrical focus of the Shondes’ sound lends itself particularly well to this album. Songs like “You Ought to Be Ashamed” profit from my lyrical breaks and a melody that’s carried (or at least matched) in the vocals. This is largely to the credit of Louisa Rachel Solomon, who provides most of the album’s vocals and whose dusky, dextrous voice is powerful and expressive throughout the entire album. (Though for a particularly good example, give a listen to “Miami”.) Also notable are the vocals that Elijah Olberman contributes to the album (“The Coming Night” and “All the Good Things”). Olberman’s smooth, expressive voice has a wonderfully androgynous quality.

As in the first album, Temim Fruchter’s drumming is rock solid. Fruchter reminds me of some of the best jazz drummers I’ve heard, adding energy and style to a song while never stealing the show. (Cf. “Fire Again” and Fruchter’s rambling, snare-heavy lines.) Solomon’s bass work is similarly solid and unobtrusive.

The only lineup change since the first album is the replacement of Ian Brannigan with an artist named Fureigh. Fureigh’s style is remarkably similar to Brannigan’s, and meshes well with the rest of the band.

My only major complaints about the album are with regards to the production quality. The whole album seems to have a flat, muted sound to it. This saps it of some of the energy it would otherwise have. This is particularly noticeable (unfortunately) on the lead title track. While this sound grew on me somewhat, I feel like the album could have profited from a brighter, cleaner sound and less post-production sophistry.

My Dear One is great rock album. It’s raw, emotional, and gutsy as hell. Songs like “Let’s Make It Beautiful” show how well the Shondes can take classic Rock forms and give them a unique sound and form to create something new and interesting. This album is well worth the price, both for fans of the first Shondes album and for people who love rock and want to hear something that’s genuinely new.

Feb 022010

A. A. Bondy @ the Blvd., 2010.1.25

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First of all, I’d like to go on record as saying that I really like the new Blvd. While it may not be a return to the glory days of the B-Side or the old Fat Tuesdays, it is a great addition to the Spokane music scene.  It’s also a damn sight better than the old Blvd, which was basically a lame dive bar that just happened to have bands most weekends.

The new Blvd is a fairly nice, professional, all-ages venue in the old B-Side building (230 W Riverside).  It’s got good acoustics and professional, friendly staff.  It’s also got a good sound system, and a clear floor that runs right up to the stage.  The show last Monday was a fairly low-key affair.  The turn out was decent, though hardly the sold out crowd I was expecting.

The opener, a local folk artist named Karli Fairbanks (MySpace, web site), was a pleasant surprise.  Her guitar work was much better than most folk artists.  It clean and strong, with unique melodic voicing and worked well with her singing.  Her vocals were also excellent, if stylistically unoriginal (she used the soft, light-vibrato voice that’s been used by so many female folk artists that it’s hard to recall who first pioneered it).  All in all, I’d be very inclined to see her again.  If you’re a Spokane folk-fan, definitely make an effort to get out and see her.

The next act was a country artist named Willy Mason (MySpace).  How he managed to fly under my radar for so long is unclear to me, but I was very impressed with his set.  He’s got a much more classic, folk-influenced voice than most modern country artists.  Put a drum kit and some synthesizers behind him and some Pitchfork twerp would be claiming that “he’s no Jeff Tweedy”.  Which is fair insofar that he does sound much more like a stripped down Uncle Tupelo than he does a stripped down Toby Keith.

A. A. Bondy (MySpace) and his band were, of course, phenomenal.  The trio included Bondy, a drummer/slide guitar player, and a bassist/keyboardist.  They were professional almost to a fault (other than thanking the crowd for applause, they didn’t seem interested in interacting with the audience.)  They played a solid set of material taken from both of Bondy’s albums.  They played with a great deal of energy, and played enough with the form of the songs that they seemed both fresh and familiar at the same time.  Highlights of the set included great versions of “O The Vampyre” and “A Slow Parade”.  The only tunes they didn’t play that I wished they had were “How Will You Meet Your End”, “American Hearts”, and Bondy’s cover of “John the Revelator.”

The show was truly an excellent one.  A great venue hosting some amazing talent.  The openers were amazing, and I will be definitely purchasing their albums as soon as I can lay my hot little hands on them.  Bondy continues to impress and I look forward both to seeing him in concert again and to whatever new music he turns out next.

Dec 282009

A Short, Belated Review

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So the new Third Eye Blind album, Ursa Major, is alright.  I’ve tried hard to love it unreservedly, but I just can’t.  There are times where it tries too hard to be experimental.  Others where it tries too hard to be current and “relevant”.  All in all, the album feels like a band worried they’re losing their edge.

Exceptions to prove the rule are those few songs where the band lets its guard down.  “Bonfire” has an incredibly infectious guitar hook supporting classic Third Eye Blind power pop.  “Dao of St. Paul” is pretty good, if a little hokey and U2-ish.  And really, the only bad thing I can say about “Carnival Barker”, the instrumental closing track, is that it’s way too damn short.

This really makes the album a frustrating one.  There are moments of unmitigated awesome, but they’re diluted with that grinding sounds of a band trying too hard and sacrificing their music on the altar of being “current”.

Nov 162009

A. A. Bondy, When the Devil’s Loose

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Artist: A. A. Bondy

Album: When the Devil’s Loose

Label: Fat Possum

Release Date: Tuesday, 2009.9.1

Score: 10/10

I’ve often ranted on this blog about the importance of the sophomore album.  While debut albums are, undoubtedly, critical, the second release from an artist serves as a predictor of possible staying power and is a better indication of an artist’s potential than any other album.  A lot of bands have great debuts.  Very few have great follow ups.  Those than have a good second release usually have a bright musical career ahead of them.

My fetishism for second albums, then, means that I’m often nervous to hear those produced by artists whose debuts I fell in love with.  In the case of A. A. Bondy, I really needn’t have worried, though.  Bondy’s sophomore effort, When the Devil’s Loose is a beautiful, well-crafted folk album, which does a great job of showcasing Bondy’s deft compositional talent and evocative lyrics.  From start to finish, it is cohesive, well-written, and masterfully performed.

The album’s thematic elements are established well by the opening track, “The Mightiest of Guns”.  This is true both of the songs complex, guitar-centered musical qualities, as well as its lyrical focus on chance and the inescapable nature of fate.  These lyrical images, especially those of fate, occur throughout the album, deftly woven into many of the songs, without ever feeling forced.

As with his last album, Bondy’s guitar work forms the musical backbone of the album.  And while When the Devil’s Loose features a more lush, layered sound than his first album, the guitar-centered aesthetic is still very much there.  This is probably best heard on the stripped-down, solemn tune “Oh the Vampyre”.  The solo, finger-picked guitar provides a bitter-sweet melody to support Bondy’s sad, self-effacing lyrics.

The somber solo guitar work of “Oh the Vampyre” is, however, the exception rather than the rule.  Probably the major musical innovation that Bondy displays on When the Devil’s Loose is his embracing of a full four-piece backing band.  This lends some much-needed depth to songs like the rambling, swaying “I Can See the Pines Are Dancing”, which benefits greatly from the musical layers that a full band provides.

The album closes on “The Coal Hits the Fire”, which is the slowest, most somber song on the disc.  While I wasn’t initially a fan of the track, it’s definitely grown on me.  Its slow, melancholy plod seems a strange choice to end the album, but after a few listens through, it does make a strange sort of musical sense.  Its evocative descriptions of departure and its lackadaisical pacing make a nice, fitting closer.

When the Devil’s Loose is a fantastic album that, along with its predecessor American Hearts, establish A. A. Bondy as one of the most promising voices of contemporary American folk music.  I highly recommend it, with no reservations whatsoever.  It’s a must-have for anyone who likes modern folk music, and definitely an album that everyone should consider adding to their collection.

Aug 292009

Conor Oberst and the Mystic Valley Band, Outer South

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So I have a whole mess of reviews that I’ve been meaning to get written.  Sad as it is to say, I’m about 6 months and a dozen albums behind on releases that I want to either review or at the very least say something about.  I’ll probably end up declaring album review bankruptcy at some point, but in the meantime, here’s the first of (hopefully) several reviews.

Album: Outer South

Artist: Conor Oberst and the Mystic Valley Band

Label: Merge Records

Release Date: Tuesday, 2009.5.5

Score: 9/10

In many ways, Outer South feels like the natural progression in a long process of maturation for singer/songwriter Conor Oberst.  It marks the first album in which his bandmates make significant and visible contributions to lyrical style and content, with many of the songs written and/or sung by people other than Oberst.  In many ways, this makes the album feel like a truly collaborative effort, whereas Oberst’s previous releases (many under the Bright Eyes moniker) were often presented as the stylistically monolithic creation of one man.

That being said, there’s little doubt that this album is, at its core, shaped and informed by Oberst’s previous body of work.  Musically, the album develops the Alt-Country themes and feel that Oberst has been developing for the past few years (since, roughly, the release of Cassadaga).  Songs like “Big Black Nothing” would feel right at home on any of these recent albums, with its jaunty, jangly guitar lines, effortlessly sliding chord changes, and twangy lyrical work by Nik Freitas.

Outer South is also an excellent demonstration of the fact that, while Oberst’s lyrical genius and compositional talent are in no way diluted or damaged by sharing the studio with strong musicians, he is definitely receptive to letting others take the reins and add their own contributions to the record.  The Mystic Valley Band, after all, is full of talented musicians who have earned a great deal of respect and notoriety in their own right.  Keyboardist Nate Walcott has played with Bright Eyes, Cursive, and Rilo Kiley.  Nik Freitas is a talented multi-instrumentalist with several of his own albums under his belt.  Jason Boesel has drummed with Rilo Kiley and The Elected.  The rest of the personnel on the album all have similarly impressive musical resumes and all are incredibly talented.

One example of this is the bouncy, poppy love song “Air Mattress”, written and sung by Taylor Hollingsworth.  While still vocally-centered like most of Oberst’s work, the sweet, energetic lyrics and Hollingsworth’s nasally, syncopated vocals are a clear departure from the classic Bright Eyes sound.  The prominent, active synth lines, and poppy guitar riffs combined with the short, verse-and-chorus structure clearly mark it as departure for Conor Oberst and more the product of Hollingsworth’s writing than Oberst’s name on the record.

Other songs, like “Roosevelt Room” indicate that, while Oberst is sharing, it’s still his show.  The song drips with socially conscious Alt-Country/Rock feel that Oberst has developed over the past few years.  The complex and bluesy guitar lines, and the irregular lyrical structure would fit in perfectly on Cassadaga or Conor Oberst.  Similarly, the referential, evocative lyrics are vintage Conor Oberst, displaying his excellent command not only of lyrical sound, but of sense and image as well.

As far as criticisms I have for the album, they’re few and far between.  The sheer number of different voices and styles on the album makes it feel, at times, a bit disjointed.  And while the songs are all brilliantly conceived, crafted, and executed, the shift in gears between, say, the light, straightfoward, pop-laden “Air Mattress” and the more somber and imagistic “Cabbage Town” can be a bit jarring.

Outer South feels, in many ways, like a grand experiment.  What happens when one takes one of the strongest lyrical voices in modern music, who is known for being strongly in command of his projects and throw him in a studio with other brilliant writers, lyricists and musicians?  Fortunately, the experiment turned out a damned fine album.  A stylistic chimaera which displays a huge range of musical excellence.  And while it is incohesive and erratic, every musical style it touches is invariably used for the creation of some truly awesome music.