Tuesday, September 19, 2006
If at first you don’t succeed, try again every seven days. In 1999, Michael Zapruder began writing, recording and posting a new song online each week for a year. The results can be found at www.52songs.org, but the rewards are vast and varied. Listening to the Oakland, Calif., musician’s sophomore album, New Ways Of Letting Go (Howells Transmitter), is akin to hearing Rufus Wainwright croon over Andrew Bird’s simmering string arrangements. But Zapruder wasn’t always blessed with perfect pipes.
“Well, it’s funny,” he says. “I didn’t make my school chorus when I was a kid, and I was the guitar player for bands for a while. I remember I started to sing songs and people would come up to me and be like, ‘Hey man, you know your guitar playing is really good, but the singing is just … You know, don’t sing.’”
A bit of practice was all Zapruder needed, and by the end of his 52-song project, he had developed his smooth, silky delivery. People soon took notice. Nate Query (the Decemberists), Jonathan Segel (Camper Van Beethoven), Scott Solter (John Vanderslice) and more than a dozen other musicians make up the Rain Of Frogs, Zapruder’s carefully chosen backing band.
Zapruder’s orchestral compositions are complex but not overbearing (he studied music at Oakland’s Laney College), allowing for each Frog to hold its own without disrupting the balance of strings, piano and the occasional triangle or shaker. Surprisingly, the Rain Of Frogs network has no roots in Laney College, sprouting instead from various connections Zapruder made through friends or Pandora.com, where he’s the music curator.
“I think I’m surrounded by talented friends,” he says. “I thought it would be interesting and fun and would make a better record to open the door and say, ‘Anybody I know might be in this band.’ I mean, if you play anything and have good ideas, you might … you know. [Laughs] I’m totally serious. It’s a lot more fun to work like this.”
Michael Zapruder - The Alchemist.mp3
It's true what they say about German engineering. So when Steve Webster, the sole Brit behind the Black Neon, wanted to get truly motorik on his new album, he motored straight to Berlin. There, he honed his handiwork with members of krautrock progenitors Amon Düül and Ash Ra Tempel. Arts & Crafts is an eclectic set of party starters that's best likened to a few other westerners looking east: "Cast That Light" is Anton Newcombe breathing smoke into Air's mellower moments, and "TX81Z" is Beck covering New Order's "Blue Monday."
Brotherhood and Weeds
I didn’t have cable television until college. When my friends used to complain about the newest MTV VJ, I smiled and nodded. When they argued over whether Jenny McCarthy or Carmen Electra was a better/hotter Singled Out host, I shrugged. When I Google image these women today, I question my friends’ tastes. Now that I have more than five fuzzy channels, I mainly watch sports and Project Runway. But there’s also Showtime’s Sunday/Monday one-two punch. Brotherhood is tense and shocking, and it’s been described as an Irish version of The Sopranos. (To be honest, I’ve only seen a handful of episodes of that show, but I hear it’s great and I’ll agree with the comparison.) On Brotherhood, one brother is a rising Rhode Island politician, the other is a crook. Mom loves them both! On Monday nights, there’s a mom I love: Weeds’ Mary-Louise Parker. Her husband dies of a heart attack, so she deals pot to rich neighbors in order to provide for her two sons. The soundtrack kicks ass (Rogue Wave, Sufjan Stevens, New Pornographers, Mountain Goats), and Parker’s sarcastic, cool-mom delivery is priceless. I Google image her, too.
Someone Still Loves You Boris Yeltsin Broom (Polyvinyl)
What with all the clapping of the hands while saying yeah and the question of what made Milwaukee famous, band nomenclature has lost some of its restraint. But that’s no reason to dismiss Springfield, Mo.’s Someone Still Loves You Boris Yeltsin. In fact, the four-piece is worth its weight in syllables. Much has already been made of the band’s overt Shins similarities, and it’s a good starting point; “I Am Warm & Powerful” will certainly hold you over until January, when the Shins’ third record is finally released. Two-thirds of the Unicorns might have gone on to form Islands, but the former band lives on in the playful, morose nature of “Anna Lee.” The elephant in the room would be labelmate Of Montreal, whose giddy stylings drive the opening track “Pangea.” Oh, and speaking of that Athens band, its “Wraith Pinned To The Mist And Other Games” just happened to close out an episode of Weeds.
SSLYBY - Oregon Girl
Monday, September 18, 2006
When it comes to categorizing, Antlerand has critics reaching for hyphens and modifiers. "Emo-core," "psychedelic rock" and "atmospheric trance" are just a few of the genre tags tossed at the Portland, Ore., trio since its formation four years ago, but Antlerand finds little solace in locating a musical niche.
"Those lines of demarcation aren't always useful, helpful or accurate," says multi-instrumentalist Zach Okun. "Doesn't the average listener listen to a wide variety of sounds? The point being, why is it weird that bands are all over the map?"
Appropriately, Antlerand was conceived at different points on the geographic map, starting as a long-distance collaboration between Oregon and Arizona. Okun was studying sound recording in Phoenix when a mutual friend connected him with Chris Larson, a Portland guitarist/vocalist who was busy incorporating visual projections into live performance. The duo debuted as Invisible, releasing The Invisible EP in 2004. By that time, Okun had moved to Portland, and the pair picked up drummer Delaney Kelly after spotting him perform alongside his girlfriend's modern-dance routine.
Invisible morphed into Antlerand after Kelly's inclusion, but the group is far from putting on its last picture show. When played live, each song is carefully synchronized with screen images consisting of lines, geometric shapes, people and places. All this might seem like an art-school vanity project, but it did draw the attention of Sleater-Kinney/Quasi drummer Janet Weiss, whom Okum met shortly after moving to Portland. How she came to guest on Antlerand's recent Branches (Sound Family) is a case of life imitating art.
"We would joke about how that last part of the song ("Now It's A Year") was kinda like a Quasi song," says Okun. "And it just seemed fitting that we'd have Janet come sing on that one."
Weiss' contribution is more cameo than showcase, as her singing almost falls through the mix. This is common for Antlerand, which sometimes employs vocals as a texture instead of a soapbox. "Now It's A Year" opens with Larson's lucid voice over heavy-handed piano chords, followed by Postal Service-esque clicking and Kelly's potent, sparse drumming. Larson and Weiss would sound like Mates Of State at the chorus if not for the droning instrumentation behind them. Branches brims with subtlety, whether it's the slight graces of glockenspiel, accordion and bells, or the discordant Modest Mouse horns at the climax of "Brighter Rays."
"I really like the fact that some songs, although they're primarily rock-based instrumentation, all of a sudden a banjo comes out of left field," says Larson. "I really like that kind of unexpectedness; kinda trying to wiggle out of being easily defined."
Antlerand - Now It's A Year.mp3
Antlerand - Brighter Rays.mp3
Not even Michael Stipe’s endorsement could make Now It’s Overhead the next R.E.M. (Stipe contributed vocals to NIO’s 2004 album Fall Back Open.) But since both groups sprouted out of Athens, Ga., it’s fitting that the up-and-coming quartet’s fuzzy college rock would suit nightswimmers and daytrippers alike. On Dark Light Daybreak, the group’s third record for Saddle Creek, Now It’s Overheard cuts back on its former haze to graze in cleaner pastures. For most of the album, lead singer Andy LeMaster sounds like a blend of Stipe and Richard Ashcroft, and his syrupy voice is one of the few factors driving the tick-tocking “Night Vision.” On “Walls,” he evokes Tim Kasher of labelmate Cursive, sing-yelling his way out of thick, constricting layers of guitar and a sliding bass line. Opener “Let The Sirens Rest” basks in those vibrant, echoing U2 riffs that fill stadiums with sound and people. Still, LeMaster often opposes the pop world’s strict separation of verse and chorus—not that there’s anything wrong with that—keeping Now It’s Overhead above the heads of the masses. If he wanted to heed pop formulas, he could turn his artist-approved band into more than a name overheard.
Now It's Overhead - Walls.mp3
Lightning can strike twice, even in a vacuum. Or at least that's the rationale behind the National's return to Bridgeport, Conn., where the Brooklyn quintet recorded parts of last year's critically acclaimed beast Alligator with producer Peter Katis (Mercury Rev, Interpol).
"The town we're in, there isn't a lot," says frontman Matt Berninger. "It's good to work in this cocoon way and kind of go crazy and be in that zone to find interesting things." Not only does the band rarely leave the porch of Katis' Tarquin Studios, the members work separately within the Victorian-style home before piecing together individual ideas at the end of the day.
"The band doesn't have a specific songwriter, and nobody claims any kind of ownership over the songs," says Berninger. "Sometimes it's for the worst, but we will usually find the song. We are right in the middle of the mess of finding the center of the song and the magical stuff."
Still, the National's lovelorn lyrics come from Berninger's brain, and he insists the new record, due in March on Beggars Banquet, won't have him dwelling on the depressed.
"I was obsessed with romantic awkward situations, and I still am to a certain extent," he says. "I feel like I don't need to write a song about that so much. But to be honest, there are a few songs going into that territory."
Southern-bred folkmaster Jim White is also in Connecticut, working with producers Joe Pernice and Michael Deming (Beachwood Sparks, Silver Jews) at the latter's CharterOak Studios. White is backed by members of New York City roots-rock collective Ollabelle, and the record should be ready for a March release on V2.
The National - Slipping Husband.mp3
Saturday, September 02, 2006
My obvious opposition to monopolies aside (is there any other sunflower seed company?), David sunflower seeds might be the best snack on the planet. No, I’m no baseball player, nor am I a “seeder,” as the company’s ad campaign deems the so-called in-crowd. Nor will you find my cheeks packed like a chipmunk stowing goods in anticipation of the winter dearth. What I am is addicted, and what you will find in each roasty, toasty shell is a little taste of earth’s goodness. Overeating can result in a sore tongue (much like after chewing on a few of those pesky, amazing Sour Patch Kids), but it’s just nature’s way of reminding you to check yourself before you wreck yourself. If David wasn’t already the Goliath of the seed business, these snacks would bring the warrior down.
It’s disturbing—not to mention illegal—for grown men to be interested in 12- and 14-year-old girls. So slap the cuffs on me, because Smoosh has cultivated a crop of forbidden pop fruit typically reserved for bands that have at least attended and dropped out of high school. But this Seattle drum/keys duo of sisters Chloe and Asya (last name wisely withheld) hasn’t done it alone. Death Cab For Cutie’s Jason McGerr is Chloe’s drum teacher and the band’s mentor, guiding the youngsters through tours with Jimmy Eat World and Mates Of State and opening slots for Pearl Jam, Sleater-Kinney and Death Cab itself. Asya’s voice occasionally thins to reveal her age, but it’s nothing worth having a sixth-life crisis over. Her kooky, often distorted keyboard riffs easily and gleefully complement Chloe’s refined, rattling drum strikes. If the sisters were 10 years older, their music would probably be marketed with hipster-approved twee terms such as “youthful exuberance,” “unbridled enthusiasm” and “childhood innocence.” In 10 years, let’s hope the duo can still showcase these traits without a smidgen of irony.
Smoosh - Find A Way.mp3
Sunday, August 27, 2006
Wednesday, August 23, 2006
Saturday was Rachel Meadow's birthday. I brought a rotisserie chicken to the potluck. It was left untouched. Not pictured: Rachel Meadows
Monday, August 21, 2006
I was hit with two losses last Wednesday, but that's reality for you—or reality tv, at least. Alison Kelly, my favorite Project Runway contestant, was booted after designing what can only be described as "crumpled paper mache armor." The contestants could only use materials found at a recycling center, and walking down the runway, Alison's model looked as stiff as the paper she was draped in. I thought Jeffrey's creation was the most creative (a textured blue/yellow dress with a broad belt), but even his crush on Alison wasn't enough to give him the win. I can't blame Jeffrey, as Alison appeared to be one of the few sane people on the show. According to her exit interview, the two totally hit it off when they discovered they both wore necklaces with the Eiffel Tower dangling from them. What are the chances that two fashion designers would have a love of Paris? And they, like, totally like the same movies and music, too! Michael, another one of the sane, wowed the judges with his trashbag-as-neck adornment. As for Alison: Despite her having an irritatingly unplaceable accent (she reps Boston, but it sounded half Floridian/half speech impediment), it is a shame to see her lose to a man (Vincent) who put a trash can on a woman's head and sent her down the runway. He also kept mentioning how much his dress "got him off" and "turned him on," which is all a bit creepier than his smile.
Stay tuned for thoughts on the SYTYCD season 2 finale, which came down to the awkwardly dubbed "Tranji" (Travis or Benji). I personally prefer the sound of "Benvis."
Monday, August 14, 2006
Martha Berner is making up for lost time. Since leaving high school, the 29-year-old singer/songwriter has lived in locations as far-flung and exotic as Alaska, Israel, the Virgin Islands and Thailand. But you can’t blame someone for seeking a life beyond Williams Bay, Wis., a village 90 miles northwest of Chicago without a single traffic light or grocery store. Berner needed to see the world.
“I had this insane wanderlust growing up,” she says in a slight Midwestern accent that’s more Fargo than Chicago, where she now resides. “My father hasn’t flown on an airplane for 25 years and probably only once in his life.” Still, Berner defends her hometown as a great place to grow up, if only because her creative side could better flourish in the absence of big-city distractions.
Then again, abandoning small-town comforts can also foster some large-scale lessons. Look no further than the underlying theme of “A Town Called Happiness,” a rollicking, acoustic-guitar-and-harmonica-fueled track on …This Side Of Yesterday (Machine), Berner’s sophomore album. Despite her dog-eared passport, the titular burg is more a mindset than a locale.
While living in San Francisco, Berner’s car collided with a small passenger train. “It clipped me on the right corner of my car and spun me around,” she laments. “I was just sitting there in the bright, white-light sun in my totaled vehicle. It was just the idea of, ‘God, what I wouldn’t do to be anywhere but here right now.’ That’s the inspiration behind that song.”
The casual listener might not glean that message from her lyrics, which tend to bury their meaning in metaphors. In the actual song, her wreck takes the form of two hitchhikers hoping for sunnier climes. The only allusion to her own misfortune appears near the end when she sings, “And you’re still misbelieving/You didn’t see the train.”
Berner’s musical touchstones are more clear-cut. Think Natalie Merchant with fewer adult-contemporary leanings or Aimee Mann on a folkier trip. Berner’s voice can thicken and thin like Joni Mitchell’s, and it’s unmistakably her greatest asset. On “Good Company,” her twangy vocals soar high above a twinkling piano and skittering drum beat as she insists, “Good company is hard to find.” Rightly so, the song was penned prior to a return to Williams Bay.
“I’m a bit of a loner, and I’ve got a bit of a melancholy way about me,” she explains. “The older I get, the more I realize a lot of it comes from having taken off and started traveling so young, because you learn pretty quickly how to become your own comfort.”
So how does Berner account for the collaborative spirit behind …This Side Of Yesterday, an effort that boasts 11 guest musicians?
“See, I’m a Gemini,” she laughs. “So I can be a total loner and a huge socialite at the same time.”
Martha Berner - Good Company.mp3
When a lead track’s lyrics reference the Beatles’ “Birthday” and Queen’s “We Will Rock You,” it’s safe to say the party has just begun. Oh, and let’s not forget about the Thin Lizzy shout-out. But this Portland, Ore., quartet isn’t stuck rehashing its fawned-over forefathers. Instead, it makes rambunctious pop in a post-Sufjan world. Which shouldn’t imply the group gravitates toward Stevens’ penchant for the non sequitur and non-secular; Alan Singley & Pants Machine simply favor the epic bells, synthy sounds and occasional choruses used by the man who put Illinois (not Chicago) on the musical map. For a closer approximation, try Ben Kweller or Ben Lee admiring the Architecture In Helsinki or serving as the foundation of Tilly’s Wall. Look out, Portland: This band could wear the pants in your pop town.
Ambulance LTD’s self-titled 2004 debut covers its musical bases like a hipster’s iPod on shuffle. One minute it’s steeped in the shoegaze stylings of My Bloody Valentine, the next it’s reimagining the Beatles in Motown. New English is equally varied and rewarding. “Arbuckle’s Swan Song,” written and sung by bassist Matthew Dublin, has a jazz-inflected soul vibe; “New English,” the only other new track, is two-and-a-half minutes of perfect pop guided by layered voices and guitar twang. The seven songs here—filled out by two demos, two rare tracks and a cover of Pink Floyd’s “Fearless”—serve mainly as a teaser for the band’s upcoming sophomore effort, but they’re also evidence that the Brooklyn quartet is refining its scattershot formula by leaving it alone.
VIDEO: Ambulance LTD - Primitive
If you ask Hudson Bell where he’s lived, he’ll reel off a list of Southern cities: Oxford, Baton Rouge, Lexington, Little Rock. If you ask him what he remembers, the answers may elude him. Just take note of how Bell recounts the grim tale of his guitar teacher’s suicide.
“My view of the story was that my sister took me to practice, I go downstairs, and all the lights were out,” he says in a thick drawl. “I was calling out his name, and he wasn’t there. What really happened was I never went anywhere. I was sitting there practicing in my room, and they called and told me what happened even before I went.”
It’s a crippling introduction to the music world at age 13, but it helps explain some of the elusive themes and searching song titles on When The Sun Is The Moon (Monitor), Bell’s third album. Now 31 and residing in San Francisco, Bell opens “The Midnight Year” by singing, “Welcome back to your hometown/We’re promising we won’t let you down anymore.” His highwire voice lilts at the end of each verse like Built To Spill’s Doug Martsch, but at nearly eight minutes long, the song garners other comparisons: Pavement’s slacker vibe and guitar-solo extravagance and Modest Mouse’s aimless, long-drive song structures. Before “The Midnight Year” ends, there are bird chirps, bells, ocean crashes, harmonica and plenty of fuzz pedal. The fuzz is laid on thick throughout When The Sun Is The Moon, mainly due to Bell’s nomadic nature; moving from place to place forced him to find temporary bandmates or fill out the sound of his early material without the aid or other musicians.
“When it came to playing by myself, it added a lot,” he explains. “A lot of times, I’d be playing and it doesn’t sound like there’s just one guitar up there. And once I started buying pedals, I kinda went nuts on eBay.”
The frequent lineup changes also account for why Bell’s band—John Slater (bass/piano/organ) and Brian Fraser (drums)—goes by his own name, a topic of endless, often humorous confusion.
“When I was younger, I didn’t want it to be my name,” he says. “I wanted it to be a band name. But it got to the point where moving to another town, it was the one constant thing, always me. I’d meet some people at a show, and if I was like, ‘Hi, I’m Hudson,’ they’d be like, ‘What? That’s your name?’”
Despite Bell’s well-traveled past, he has yet to visit Baltimore, home of the Monitor label. Still, he draws a connection. “I played baseball when I was younger, and my favorite team was the Baltimore Orioles,” he says. “My dream was to be a pitcher on the Orioles, so I was kinda like, ‘This is the closest thing I can get.’”
Hudson Bell - Atlantis Nights.mp3
For the record, Girls in Hawaii are neither girls nor Hawaiian; the Belgian band's name is more a signifier of desire. Vocalist Antoine Wielemans and guitarist/vocalist Lionel Vancauwenberge, the two songwriters behind the sextet, seem intent on making a transatlantic journey, and they wear it on their CD sleeves. From the album title to the Jenny Holzer truism in the liner notes ("Being sure of yourself means you're a fool"), it's clear the group seeks an alternate identity. At least it knows whom to emulate. On this debut (released two years ago in Europe to significant sales), Girls In Hawaii summon Nirvana on a synthesizer kick. Kudos to Cobain for providing the blueprint of crunching guitars and minor-key progressions. The Wrens and Portastatic are other noteworthy forefathers, especially when the Girls start chugging along with rolling, screeching guitar lines. What separates the band from its record collection is purely accidental but nonetheless refreshing: Wielemans' ESL lyrics and delivery lead the Girls with a naive, confident swagger. "When I'm feeling the right/Holding to catch the stars," he sings on "Bees & Butterflies (Down)." What's more American than a foreignor struggling with the language?
Hail to the latest thieves of Radiohead's sound: Eastern Conference Champions, a Bucks County, Pa., trio formed by ex-members of Laguardia. But warming Radiohead's bench won't make you a fan favorite. (Just ask Paloalto.) Luckily, ECC's five-song EP hits its share of clutch shots. On the brooding, pounding, synth-laced "Nice Clean Shirt," guitarist/keyboardist Josh Ostrander yelps, "Welcome to the middle/Nothing's good and nothing works/And the kids won't respond to any words/And luck is hard to find." Keep your heads up, Champions. Even the junior-varsity team has its moments.
Last July saw the release of this Virginia singer/songwriter's Vol. 1, a debut LP heavily indebted to Elliott Smith's patented quiet-acoustic sound. Although Meredith Bragg is a quick study, he also knows it's wrong to write the same tale twice. The Departures EP is just what its title suggests, a limited-edition pressing on which Bragg discards the Smith songbook for clean staff paper. The spare arrangements remain, but instead of evoking Smith's desperate tone, Bragg sounds sure of himself. On cello-laden opener "Empty Beds," he sings, "Some things never change/The more you stare, the more they stay the same." Here's hoping he looks away as he pens the next chapter.
Meredith Bragg And The Terminals - Empty Beds.mp3
Sunday, August 13, 2006
It must be the difference in hemispheres: In the Land Down Under, night is day, summer hits in winter and the water spirals the opposite way down sinks and toilets. Furthermore, Kelley Stoltz is king. Well, almost.
“We just played for 350 people in Melbourne,” says the 33-year-old songwriter/multi-instrumentalist. “That’s about as many as I get at home in San Francisco. And if I venture down to L.A., it’d be about 30. So it’s pretty weird.”
Though the hype hasn’t reached Dandy Warhols proportions (Courtney Taylor and Co. have had 12 top-10 singles in Australia), Stoltz laughs as he claims his own share of fandom.
“Some girl had pictures blown up that she wanted me to sign,” he says. “I told her that’s good stuff for eBay. It’ll at least get her 48 cents.”
All joking aside, Stoltz—who spent much of his adolescence thumbing through albums at Detroit-area record stores—knows a thing or two about salesmanship. When he found himself without a label to release his sophomore album, 2001’s Antique Glow, he pressed a couple hundred vinyl copies and hand-painted each cover to cut down on costs. The record eventually made it onto CD in Australia (on Corduroy/Raoul in 2002), thanks to fellow Bay Area musician Chuck Prophet (Green On Red).
“I first met Kelley when we played an odd show together at a gay leather bar called the Eagle in San Francisco back in 2002,” says Prophet. “After the gig, Kelley came out to my van and sheepishly handed me his record. He’d painted this Br’er Rabbit over an old thrift-store album cover and tucked his white-label vinyl inside. Somehow, I just knew I wouldn’t be letting go of it anytime soon.”
Antique Glow’s domestic release followed in 2003 on Jackpine Social Club, but Stoltz’s loyalties lie with the original handcrafted run. “Halfway through, I realized it tied in thematically with the record and with the title,” explains Stoltz of his one-man endeavor. “Afterwards, I was glad because it was a way to stay involved with the record without letting it go.”
Holding on to the past is normal for Stoltz, as showcased by the nostalgic strain that resonates throughout the folk/pop blues of Below The Branches (Sub Pop), his new full-length. On the groovy, piano-driven opener “Wave Goodbye,” he sings, “There’s a rock, and I’ll be clinging/Until all my days are done.” Later, on the bouncing “Memory Collector,” he warbles, “I remember your childhood hair/Flowing wild at the county fair.” The song concludes with some Beatlesque “ba-da-da”s, as if Stoltz can’t escape the musical history that binds him.
“Any time you’re looking back a little bit, it’s with a degree of satisfaction or a degree of self-loathing,” he says. “It’s just trying to make something out of what happened in your life.”
Last year’s Crockodials made work of his childhood obsession with Echo & The Bunnymen; it’s a track-by-track cover of the 1980 classic. Ian McCulloch’s woozy touch is all over Below The Branches, as are traces of Ray Davies, Syd Barrett and the Band. Ironically, there is no band; Stoltz records every instrument at home on eight-track reel-to-reel.
“I’m something of a control freak,” he admits. “Part of it comes from wanting to play those instruments on the record, and part of it is kind of like taking a Polaroid picture; the gratification you get from that rather than taking it down to get developed at a lab.”
Even with this do-it-yourself attitude, Stoltz isn’t opposed to loosening the production reins in the future. But it would take the right offer.
“If I could take my eight-track machine over to London and work with George Martin, I’d do that for sure,” he says. Looks as if no man is an island—even if you’re loved by one.
Kelley Stoltz - Memory Collector.mp3
Saturday, August 12, 2006
In my last encounter with Blake Sennett, the Rilo Kiley co-leader was preaching the merits of personal property. The California pop quartet had just left the stage after a cover of the Postal Service’s “Such Great Heights.” (Sennett sang Ben Gibbard’s lines; Rilo Kiley frontwoman Jenny Lewis sang her part from the original.) Sennett returned to find his lyric sheet missing. Anger resonated from his voice as he accused various members of the departing crowd. It was as if someone had stripped Sennett of his right to sing, as if it could be crumpled and tossed away. No wonder the Elected’s 2004 debut is titled Me First; the side-project affords Sennett the opportunity to part the curtains and allow a bit of sunshine to overtake Lewis’s red-headed shadow. On Sun, Sun, Sun, the Elected puts forth a batch of, well, sunny, twangy pop occasiaonally colored by bright horns. Like former Saddle Creek labelmate Conor Oberst, Sennett teeters between precious and wild. While his narratives aren’t as poignant as the Omaha wonderboy’s, Sennett wields his own narrative brush strokes: “When we made love in the van and I drove with your hand on my lap/When San Diego got too unkind, we just picked up and left him behind,” he sings on “It Was Love.” OK, so he’s no Dylan, but Sennett shouldn’t need lyric sheets when he’s got his own pen.
The Elected - Not Going Home.mp3
The cover art of Okkervil River’s Black Sheep Boy depicts mythical creatures surrounding the dinner table. Black Sheep Boy Appendix, comprising reworked, unreleased material from the same sessions, displays one of those creatures plunging a sword into the flame-shooting eyes of its victim. Despite the ominous imagery, not every feast ends in heartburn. The lurching strings and last-gasp vocals of opener “Missing Children” are typical of Okkervil’s eerie, desperate tone, but unlike the tryptophan-filled longplayer, Appendix accommodates its dinner guests’ requests by trimming the fat from songwriter Will Sheff’s complex recipes. If this is the sound of cutting away, kindly pass the knife.
Okkervil River - No Key, No Plan.mp3
A common misconception about Stars’ Torquil Campbell is that he hails from Canada. Normally, this wouldn’t matter much, but it means a lot when you’re critical of the United States government.
“I’ve read things where people say, ‘Torquil Campbell should shut the fuck up and get back on a bus to Canada,’ he says. “I happen to be American, which they don’t know, so I reject that argument. I come from generations of Americans. My ancestor was the first governor of Massachusetts, so I’m the Declaration of Independence.”
Bold words from the soft-spoken co-vocalist/songwriter of the Montreal-based band, but that’s nothing new for Campbell. Set Yourself On Fire (Arts & Craft), Stars’ third and most polished pop symphony, concerns politics, romance and the politics of romance sung in sweet, almost angelic voices. (Guitarist Amy Millan trades melodic punches with Campbell throughout the album.)
The song most scrutinized is “He Lied About Death,” a screeching track with elegant brushes of keyboard and horns over a glitchy, militant beat. But it’s the lyrics that people tend to hear. Campbell and Millan sing in unison, “What gives you the right to fuck with our lives?… I hope your drunken daughters are gay.”
“I guess it’s about George Bush,” says Campbell, pausing. “But for me, it’s about Osama bin Laden or any number of people. 99.999 percent of the universe, they just wanna live, be loved, have a baby, have sex every once in a while and be happy. And these guys, for whatever reason—I don’t know if their mothers didn’t love them or whether they’re just possessed by the Devil—they want more.”
Although Set Yourself On Fire hit Canada in October of 2004, reached the U.S. the following March and just debuted overseas, its message is more relevant than ever. Stars recently returned from a European tour, the end of which coincided with Hurricane Katrina’s devastation of the Gulf Coast.
“The people in Europe, they didn’t see the symbolism as heavily as I imagined most people saw it over here,” he says. “It was so obvious that New Orleans was a slave city that was built so all the poor black people had shit and water running into their neighborhoods and all the rich people lived on high ground. Even Bush had to own up to that.”
Yet Campbell doesn’t consider Fire a political record. Love and politics go hand in hand—or lie side by side in bed.
“It’s just as hard to love the person sitting next to you who you’re sleeping in bed with as it is to love the world,” says Campbell. “It’s no simpler to find peace in your own bed than it is to find peace in the Middle East. It’s the same problems, it’s the same human instincts. And we’re all struggling with it.”
VIDEO: Stars - Your Ex-Lover Is Dead
Like the smoking rising from an ashtray, Beautiful Noise is about what's been left behind to burn. Fittingly, Nourallah's cigarette-addled voice comes searching for answers. Though backward-looking, the Texas songwriter is always forward-thinking, collecting trinkets and locales from the past and translating them into alt-country snapshots. A ghost is reborn within these tales, and its silhouette lingers near the books that were never read.
VIDEO: Salim Nourallah - The World Is Full Of People Who Want To Hurt You (Acoustic)
If Yo-Yo Ma and Ian MacKaye scored an Alfred Hitchcock film, Anti-Social Music might sleep through it. After all, this New York City collective—comprising musicians from bands such as the Hold Steady, Ida and Songs:Ohia—basically already channels that collaboration on Great American Songbook. Imagine an orchestra wearing formal attire and combat boots, then replace the conductor's baton with a bottle of Jack Daniel's.
It still moves, but Jim James has got a brand new bag. A bag of new records, possibly. Z finds My Morning Jacket at the end of the road, leaning forward, embracing drum clicks and glitzy
keyboards like never before. James still summons his whale of a wail, but the hirsute crew has swapped hookahs for hooks. Less hazy and less lazy, Z is that new kid at school with the fresh looks and hot dance steps. He's such a showoff.
BRMC has cast off the shoegaze shroud and entered the dusty barn. Somewhere along the way, leaders Peter Hayes and Robert Been found their voices—both literal and literary. The pair trades newly audible verses, preaching the blues, whiskey and religion. By ditching the Mary Chain for a closer look at Jesus, they've learned that acceptance is a wonderful thing. So whatever happened to their rock 'n' roll? Does it matter?
VIDEO: BRMC - Ain't No Easy Way
“There are two types of High Dials songs,” says 30-year-old singer/guitarist Trevor Anderson. “Love songs and science-fiction songs.” While he may be oversimplifying, there’s a grain of truth to every joke. The Montreal band channels the psychedelic ’60s, specifically that point when groups such as Love and the Zombies started mining Eastern influences for both sound and Zen philosophy.
“What are we?” asks Anderson. “We’re just a sum of memories. But my whole identity is made up of memories. How do you cope with them, deal with them and let go of them in a healthy way? I think that’s what I’m dealing with in a lot of songs.”
Then there’s Rishi Dhir’s sitar, which he swaps with his bass—emblazoned with an Aum (a sacred Hindu symbol)—during shows. Live, guitarist Robbie MacArthur assumes bass duties while Dhir rolls out a small rug, removes his shoes and sits dwarfed by the giant instrument. Dhir picked up the sitar while visiting relatives in India about a decade ago, but he admits there’s still room for growth. “I’ve been taking classical lessons for about a year with this German guy who looks like George Harrison,” he says.
Back in 2001, the High Dials formed out of mod trio the Datsons (Anderson, Dhir and drummer Robb Surridge), changing their moniker to avoid questions about name similarities with that other band (New Zealand-based Datsuns, who they happen to be friends with). The change also signaled a musical shift.
“It gave us an opportunity to break from our past,” says Anderson. “Spread our wings and broaden our scope. A New Devotion was the debut record of a new band.”
A New Devotion impressed the Rainbow Quartz label, which in 2003 ushered the worldwide release of the sprawling concept album about a boy named Silas and his battles with a futuristic city. The album was one of those big-in-Canada successes, cracking the top five charts on Canadian college radio but merely sliding into the top 50 in the U.S. college charts.
New sophomore effort War of the Wakening Phantoms was recorded in various garages and barns before the band sought out the expertise of producer Joseph Donovan (Dears) and mixer David Bianco (Teenage Fanclub, Frank Black). “Robbie and I both wanted to incorporate a lot of shoegazer elements in the music,” says Anderson. “We wanted to do an album that was very atmospheric and psychedelic.”
Phantoms is just as sprawling and thematic as its predecessor, and Anderson laughs when questioned about the viability of two consecutive 60-minute albums: “It’s part of the psychedelic tradition. Don’t cut the song short.”
The High Dials - The Holy Ground.mp3
Friday, August 11, 2006
The triumphant, piano-driven opening to stellastarr*’s sophomore album could easily score the last moments of a prizefighter’s victory bout. Which prompts the question: Who’s the best contender for the new-new-wave crown? Franz Ferdinand has its Scottish allure (and the Killers their makeup), but this New York City quartet’s overlooked 2003 self-titled debut has something the others can’t flaunt or fake: grit in storytelling. “Jenny” tells the tale of an inescapable love for a girl who talks to herself, while “Somewhere Across Forever” details the world-canvassing power of desire, from the Sahara to New York City. Harmonies for the Haunted picks up where stellastarr* left off, weaving plots of misplaced identity (“Lost In Time”), familial abandonment (“Born In A Flea Market”) and costly change (“Love And Longing”). “The Diver,” about an athlete’s struggle with stardom, seems like a meta-plot designed to mirror stellastarr*’s lack of commercial success. When frontman Shawn Christensen croons, “You can fool your fans/But you can’t fool yourself,” it feels as if he’s choked by the demons of the music industry. Suffocation has never sounded so good.
VIDEO: stellastarr* - Sweet Troubled Soul
It’s possible that the members of Apollo Sunshine are proud owners of a vinyl-only record collection. The Boston quartet’s sophomore effort is a hodgepodge of ’70s album rock, a bar-room stomp that few bands have nailed since, well, the Band. Don’t be misled, though; this isn’t a nostalgia-reliant crate dweller. Produced by Brian McTear (Matt Pond PA, Mazarin), Apollo Sunshine, like the scenes depicted in its artwork, is a journey through stony waterfalls, sun-beaten prairies and backcountry mountains. Side A, track one “Flip!” could back a Starsky & Hutch car chase before singer/multi-instrumentalist Jesse Gallagher literally flips the song from minor to major key, “A Finger Pointing At The Moon” takes place in Ray Davies’ village green, and the instrumental “The Hotter, The Wetter, The Better” gets its hazy tendencies from the Stranglers’ 1981 British hit “Golden Brown.” This sets the stage for the upbeat “Eyes,” a veritable side B, track one. “Phyllis,” in a stunning Dark Side Of The Moon moment, has Gallagher singing the song title in place of “Money.” Traversing this much musical terrain without a hitch is reason to believe it’s showtime for the Apollo.
VIDEO: Apollo Sunshine - Today Is The Day
Still, the 31-year-old Schwartz (who goes by the name Zach Rogue for stage purposes) relays all this information with a chuckle and a grin. Slouching down on a sofa at Philadelphia bar, he props his shoes up on a coffee table covered in band stickers. A tan, billed beanie rests snugly on his head. Paired with his small hoop earrings and goatee, Schwartz slightly resembles Jackass parent-terrorizer Bam Margera. He has a curious and warm look on his face, as if nothing bad has ever happened to him. Maybe last night’s medication hasn’t worn off. Or maybe there’s just too much for the guy to be happy about.
Last year, Rogue Wave’s debut album, Out Of The Shadow (recorded mostly by Schwartz and released on Bay Area label Responsive Recordings in 2003) found its way to Sub Pop, which remastered and re-released the record. It also caught the attention of numerous critics with its witty, sarcastic lyrics (“In this postage-stamp world/You can all get in line/And lick my behind”) and quirky Kinks-like melodies. Even so, Schwartz is modest about his success so far.
“I think the condition of any musician to always be looking,” he says, referring to his desire to touch a larger audience. “That’s just the nature of things as human beings. We always want what’s just within our reach or pretty far out of our reach.”
Schwartz began reaching in an Oakland household filled with music. “My stepdad would have friends over and they’d sit around playing an acoustic guitar, singing songs,” he says. “To me, that was about the coolest thing you could do.” When Schwartz was in the fourth grade, his mother bought him a Casio keyboard, one he still plays today. She constantly encouraged his practicing and listening habits. “If I was playing Cypress Hill or something,” he laughs, “there’d be no judging.”
Schwartz’s interest in the guitar picked up during his time at the University of California at Davis, where he studied political science and literature. “I’d be playing a couple songs,” he says. “Friends would be sitting there and say, ‘Play that song again.’ I was like, ‘You wanna hear that?’ A lot of times, the songs were really obnoxious, like making fun of rednecks.”
After college, Schwartz would spend time in Washington, D.C., working for a foreign-policy research group. “I loved the work,” he says. “The people were so brilliant. But I hated Washington. I couldn’t stand the culture there, so I moved to San Diego and lived on the beach for a while.”
Back West, he played in several bands, including the Desoto Reds, before leaving for New York, where he worked on Out Of The Shadow with producer Bill Racine (Hopewell, Odiorne). Schwartz returned to Oakland and found his bandmates—drummer Pat Spurgeon and bassist Sonya Westcott (who’s since been replaced by Evan Farrell)—via an online posting at craigslist.org. Gram Lebron, a friend of Spurgeon’s, eventually joined on guitar. Despite the changes in scenery, Schwartz’s interest in politics never waned, leading to the title of Rogue Wave’s sophomore release, Descended Like Vultures (Sub Pop).
“The vulture is the person who judges,” he explains. “My feeling is that if we did go in a different direction, there’d be criticism. But the vulture is larger than that. What do we see going on in the world? These are very caustic times where people take advantage of each other, whether it be business or politics.”
Descended Like Vultures is a welcome progression, a fuller, more tied-together record that retains the Shins-like charm of Out Of The Shadow. “The first album was an extension of me sitting there with my acoustic guitar and building some stuff on top of that,” says Schwartz. “This time, I didn’t want to start with one instrument. I wanted to start with a song. Everyone would throw their parts in there and we’d figure it out.”
Now that Schwartz is sharing song-arrangement duties, he’s opening up a lot more. He climbs the stage tonight in Philadelphia and addresses the audience: “Got a tetanus shot in the ass. If you’d like to see the bandage later...”
VIDEO: Rogue Wave - Publish My Love