Happy St. Patrick’s Day. May your beer be green. After a really good month of releases, March is also shaping up to be a great month with a number of excellent releases worthy of inclusion in your collections. I’ve recovered a bit from last week’s rant, so things should be a little more positive. I am excited about this year, to the extent that there are some very positive developments in the direction of new music: psychedelic music ( which I’ve decided to label as modern psychedelic (“mod-psych”) seems to be gaining a stronghold and there are some interesting adaptations as bands incorporate more garage influences into this genre as compared with past efforts which were more symphonic/prog influenced; there is an increase in the number of “loud” bands, i.e. punk/thrash/hardcore/noise bands that are much more melodic and cognizant of song structure which is a nice break from the very synth oriented alt rock light that is finding radio airplay, and finally, some great records from prior dropbox bands, such as We Are Scientists, The Men, and The Augustines, are either newly released or are about to be released and continue to bring listening enjoyment. Frankly, that is more than one could hope as the turmoil in the real world continues to demand more attention. Hope you have a great month in reality, and enjoy this month’s dropbox offerings.
A brief note before we begin: A question that arises from time to time is why there are no rankings or ratings for the monthly drop box releases. Good question. I know that other reviewers spend time trying to assign a numerical value to the release. I used to believe that these had some meaning. However, when you actually think about it, and I actually took a few seconds to think about what that value, which purports to be objective i.e. when we assign numbers to things then we are saying that we can measure the relative value of that thing. The same holds true with letters – A is great, F is bad and the rest of the letters meaning some level between great and bad) The commercial is true – bigger is better. Usually. Places in timed events are an exception. So, when you look at a rating from a magazine review or blog review, the assignment of a value in their rating system purports to also measure the worth of that recording to the reviewer but also the reader. The reviewer is in the business of selling their perspective on a recording – good, bad, or indifferent to the reader. The reader, based upon really incomplete information i.e. who is this reviewer, what was their emotional state when they were listening to the release, what is their experience with the artist prior to this record, what particular genres do they like to enjoy as compared with review, etc. must make a decision about the release based upon this incomplete information but also their own listening preferences, experience with the artist prior to the new release, and depending on how much work one wants to put into the process, determine if the reviewer is in the same mind as they are in making a determination to listen to a record. Brutal. So, when confronted with the fact that those casual viewers of Tales From The Dropbox have really no idea who I am as a person, and my fundamental belief that music is not competition, I decided at the inception of Tales From The Dropbox that I would only put in the dropbox things that (a) I had actually listened to more than one time; (b) That I actually liked; and (c) That I enjoyed listening to repeatedly. For me, and only me, I thought that it was better to write about releases that I enjoyed because too much of what is written in print and online is negative. That is, reviews are oft times more concerned with why a release is worth the assigned value than why they enjoyed the release at all. To avoid that potential trap, I have just tried to find those releases that I liked enough of the tracks to listen to again and again. This is not to say that I do not have any releases I do not like. That list is in fact very large. I just don’t care to keep track. For example, I didn’t like the Lorde record Pure Heroine. I know, every reviewer told me that it was excellent and one of the best debuts of all time. Still, I didn’t like it and I actually cringe when I hear the single played on the radio. I’ve blocked out the title, but you know which one I’m talking about. And that is why the dropbox notes are written in the format they end up taking. I try to give you enough, I hope relevant information to decide for yourself whether you might also enjoy the record.
And to be clear, not all of the records in the dropbox are perfect. That is, not all the songs on a record are “singles” whatever that means anymore. For example, as I write this, I am listening to what I think would make a great radio single: “Sound of Tomorrow” by the Striving Vines. Will it ever be on radio – any radio? Perhaps indie radio but certainly not any commercial radio station. Why you ask? I have no idea. I used to believe I knew. Once, a long time ago. Not now. I have no idea how some of the stuff that is played on radio actually gets there and why the same 30 songs are played endlessly, sometimes for years, on radio stations throughout the country. But now, with YouTube and other music media related sites and the artist sites, I don’t have to listen to radio. But I still read reviews to see if there is something that might tickle my interest. So, a record that makes the dropbox is to me enjoyable for the most part. There are some tracks I skip, some songs where I wonder what the $^# does that lyric mean or that is a brutal rhyme, etc. But overall I am enjoying the listening experience.
So, there you have it. The real reason why I write this stuff. My hope is that you find enough each month that you enjoy in the dropbox and that these notes make it a little easier to pick out something of interest. You already know that I like everything that is in the dropbox. So, with clarification…away we go!
Following up the theme from last month – albums from 2013 that I missed or didn’t get to in time, Blackchords are a Melbourne Australia rock band who play a mix of U2 inspired electronic alt-rock that introduces more synths than their previous eponymous outing to A Thin Line, their second album. Overall, the songs strike a “chord” (see how I did that!) with the listener as the majority of the album deals with avoiding the distractions and from the slow build of opener “a Thin Line though to the first single, the up-tempo “Dance Dance Dance” the songs build as the band creates a soundscape that sonically peaks here and then, the tension releases to the last track, the sweetly acoustic tinged “All the Good Things.” This is a distinctively Australian pop album, and thoroughly enjoyable. It’s a shame that the album was missed, because the entire record is very carefully crafted, and this truly deserves a much wider audience. My guess is that they become huge stars in Australia, and unfortunately are ignored in the U.S. This would be a great show. Try” Dance, Dance, Dance,” “Oh No” and “Into The Unknown.”
Toronto Ontario’s Papermaps released their second full length is October 2013 to little fanfare, but after having played it a number of times over the past couple of months, Darker Lights, is an unexpected diamond in the rough. Much darker than their first offering, I love this record from the opening riff of “Shadow Theater” which envelopes you with its post-punk guitar work reminiscent of early Echo& The Bunnymen, through the last track the gritty “Vanauley Walk” (an area of Toronto noted for gangs). Admittedly, it took me a couple of listens to get into Darker Lights, but something resonated, and the repeated experience is worth the effort. There are some shoegaze elements to the songs, but there is also a harder edge to some of the songs, that make for a varied experience (on “The Edge Of China Town” I was reminded of Canadian greats, Lighthouse). Try” The Edge Of China Town,” “The Memory Song,” and “I’ve Closed A Door.”
Another victim of releasing a record in December, is Portland’s Genders, who on their debut Get Lost, mine some 90’s alt-rock territory effectively producing a guitar record which underpins the terrific vocals of Maggie Morris and Katherine Paul whose warm tones give the dream rock/post-rock flavored album enough grit to standout from other like-minded bands from the Pacific Northwest. The songs are lengthy workouts, particularly the opener, “Something To Get You By” which sets the tone for the rest of the record. There are a number of interesting things going on throughout the record, but for me were the shimmering guitar work introducing a little jangle to the post-rock and fuzz, and the enigmatic Beach Boy harmonies floating through the fuzz. This is a sonically different record than much of what passes for indie rock, so worth a few spins. Try: “How Long Can I Wait?” “Secrets,” and “Something To Get You By.”
By far one of the most interesting albums this month is Birmingham England’s New Killer Shoes debut release, the acoustic version of 2011’s I Ain’t Even Plugged In redone. This is not your typical acoustic record by any stretch of the imagination – it’s loud, it rocks, and the percussion is engaging mixing a blend of ska, reggae, punk, and engaging melodies, there is not one track on this album that didn’t leave me with a sugar craving. A mix of the Kooks and Oasis ( really – you’ll hear the vocal tone immediately), these songs show off a mastery of pop songwriting. Can’t really say enough about this record. It was on repeat for a month. Try” Hypocrite,” “Pretty Reckless” and the Police flavored “I Ain’t Got A Chick.”
Full tilt rock n’ roll, Peterborough’s (England not Ontario) We Are Fiction mines the same territory as Billy Talent and Linkin Park and this is an awesome rock record. Fast melodic punk rock with great hook laden choruses, the album leaves you breathless as this is a full on sonic assault from first track “Mansion House” through the end. The distinctive raw throated vocals of Phil Barker counterbalanced with the more melodic tones of Marc Kucharski are reminiscent of Linkin Park when they were actually good. They are not now. That is sad. We Are Fiction are not mining new territory, but the enthusiasm is powerful and this was a good listening experience. Try “Old Wounds,” “The Worst of It,” and “Forget About Me.”
Seattle retro rockabilly surf garage jangle poppers and rockers, La Luz debut album is an anachronism – simple clean sounding and brilliant debut, It’s Alive which sonically harkens back to the twang of the late great Duane Eddy and the Ventures. There are a number of tempo shifts as the record swings back and forth through the best that this genre has to offer. The centerpiece of It’s Alive is “Big Big Blood” with its Morricone intro dissolving into a gospel influenced surf clash that would naturally find a home on the Pulp Fiction Soundtrack. Try” What Good Am I?” “Big Big Blood,” and “Morning High.”
Pop punkers We The Kings hail from Florida, but unlike most of the Floridian punk scene, We The Kings have, on Somewhere Somehow, found the delicate balance between the boy-band pop side, apparent from vocalist Travis Clark’s sweet sounding vocals, and the pop-punk side which made them warped tour regulars with other similar sounding acts such as Fall Out Boy and Panic! At The Disco. Another December 2013 release, the songwriting is noticeably stronger on this record, the bands fourth. The closest resemblance to Fall Out Boy is found on “I Like It” but We The Kings are not mere copyists, finding their own groove on tracks like “I Feel Alive” and “Die Young Live Forever.” I will warn that this is a difficult to listen through all at once as the sugar pop becomes sickly sweet in one dose, as the tunes darker lyrical themes are effectively hidden in the up-tempo pop-punk. However, as a track pops up in shuffle, I think you’ll be hooked. Try “Art of War,” “Queen of Hearts,” and “Sad Song.”
Nashville would seem to have little to do with punk rock, but Nashville’s Cheap Time, a punk trio from the home of country music, have released their 4th LP in five years, the very fine Exit Smiles. A mix of Buzzcocks, Damned, and early California punk rock i.e. the Macdonald Brothers (Red Cross), this is a loud and snotty album which is far too short. I was left wanting more as Jeffrey Novak sounding like Steve Diggle, blasts his way through these 8 tunes. Try “Kill The Light,” “Exit Smiles,” and “8:05.”
A weird record by far for 2013, Jason Arnold aka Shyboy, has released Water on Mars which I swear is a cross between the Alan Parson’s Project and Steely Dan. There is no other possible way of describing this blend of prog-pop. I would not ever willing pick up a record like this if I had read the last sentence. I stumbled across this record and the mix of white soul (does that even exist?) and electro-pop was captivating. “Carousel” is typical of the songs on Water on Mars – a blend of soul vocals over an electronic beat laden bed with perfect harmonies moving in and out of the soundscape. Definitely a different listening experience. While I don’t quite agree with the Huffington Post review as the “Debut Pop Album of 2013” and “stunning” it is dropbox worthy. Try” “Carousel”, “Bird In Flight” and “Marion Crane.” Also, try this cover of Nik Kershaw’s “Wouldn’t It Be Good” which doesn’t appear on the record, but is a darn good jam.
Iceland’s Tilbury, founded by drummer Thormodur Dagsson (Great name!) on their second record find the indie pop groove building a slow burn as the songs on Northern Comfort build on the self-described folk pop leaving the sparse arrangements naked for the listener to absorb. There is a lushness amidst the open spaces on these tender tracks, all to great effect as the subdued vocals compel you to listen. It’s a great device as the music is so tightly played that you are directed to listen to the vocals and the lyrics – a unique inside out listening experience. Many records are not built in this manner. On conventional pop records, you can sing the chorus which is crisp and clean and then you can’t recall a single verse. Here, the way each song is constructed you hear the music and then have to dig into the lyrics which creates an exciting listening experience. Compelling is the best way to describe this record. Try” Northern Comfort,” “Turbulence,” and “Transmission.” Take a look live from Iceland on KEXP.
We are Augustines now just called the Augustines, formerly from Brooklyn and transplanted into Seattle, are obviously looking at a new direction. But that new direction doesn’t neglect the stellar songwriting and melodies which found them in the dropbox and in my top 10 records (Rise Ye Sunken Ships) from 2011. On the self-titled second album, Augustines, the band obviously picks up from where Rise Ye Sunken ships left off, but now everything on this record is bigger, bolder, and brighter and this might be one of the best rock albums of the year. I kid you not – this is a unique sound – vocalist/guitarist Billy McCarthy’s vocals are captivating and the songwriting which is reminiscent of the Gaslight Anthem and the Hold Steady, hints of Springsteen, and captures the intensity of McCarthy’s journey. This is a solid record throughout and you can’t help but feel the emotion flowing thorough this record, particularly on the epic “This Ain’t Me” ( I can change, said the walls as fast as they could…). Brilliant. Try ”Cruel City”, “Kid You’re On Your Own,” and “This Ain’t Me.” Also a KEXP show See the Full Performance from early last month after a show in Vancouver.
For me, Newmarket Ontario’s Tokyo Police Club are the model of consistency. Having, now produced several EP’s and with its third full length, Forcefield, Dave Monks and the rest of Tokyo Police Club produce yet another amazing indie pop record full of complicated rhythms and catchy melodies that suck you into the sonic swirl. Opener “Argentina (Parts I, II, and III)” clocks in at 8:32 and every second of this song fits and is truly enjoyable – thrilling at times. I’m not sure how they will edit it for Canadian radio, where Tokyo Police Club’s last album 2010’s Champ produced four singles, three of them Canadian hit singles: “Breakneck Speed,” “Wait Up (Boots of Danger),” “Bambi,” and “Favourite Colour” (Note the double Canadian word. For the U.S. Readers, the last song is “Favorite Color.”). Note none of these songs found the radio in the U.S. Forcefield continues the terrific songwriting and catchy up-tempo guitar friendly rock. Try: “Hot Tonight,” “Beaches,” and “Tunnel Vision.” Great record! And just for the hell of it, try this cover version of “Since You’ve Been Gone.”
What I like best about NYC’s post punk act Drowners who like the Strokes who came before them feature a male model in Matt Hill (from Wales) is that they are not afraid to tread where the mighty Strokes have previously traveled. Drowner’s is a guitar band who like that great period in 2002 -2003 have reinvented the indie guitar band. In places Drowners self-titled debut leans a little heavy on the Strokes guitar and vocal model, but where they really shine is on the Interpol/Brit pop flavored tracks like “Luv, Hold Me Down.” No secret that the band’s name is derived from the Suede single of the same name. However, the record tips its hat to the Smiths, particularly on a track like “Unzip Your Harrington.” This is a straight forward catchy indie dance rock album and the tendency will be to dismiss the record because it sounds like an amalgam of all that has come from before. However, that would be to sell this thing really short, because more than anything it is a fun record with its 80’s and 90’s influences producing some terrific songs. As debut records go, there is much to like about this record and I found myself coming back repeatedly to play the darn thing in its entirety. Try “Long Hair,” “Unzip Your Harrington,” and the exceptional “Bar Chat.”
One of my favorite bands of the eighties, New York’s pre-eminent garage rockers, the Fleshtones, bring their unique blend of 60’s influenced soul-garage back with a new record of fuzz filled jangle garage rock songs that stays the course after a career spanning nearly four decades (formed in 1976). I was able to see the Fleshtones a couple of times in the 80’s at the height of their powers and these were wild ragged affairs which I remember fondly. Wheel of Talent avoids the pitfalls of other 80’s bands releasing new records. The Fleshtones have obviously not forgotten that they are the kings of Super Rock! After 22 albums ( yes – 22 full length albums) there are some new twists to the super rock sound – such as female vocals and strings, but the whole thing is fresh and fast paced nostalgic look at an era that is, sadly missed. Perhaps the Fleshtones brand of garage rock will never make a comeback, but this album is a worthy addition to a very fine catalog by a singularly unique band in rock history. Try ”Roofarama,” “What I’ve Done Before,” and “The Right Girl.” See them in all of their live glory at the Concetera TV produced concert in Sonar, Siena, Italy from December of 2013.
London indie pop rockers Hatcham Social occupy a unique space in the indie rock world – their avant-garde approach to their blend of angular rock, makes for some very interesting listening. What is charming is the unpredictable nature of this record which encapsulates some of the Velvet Underground’s finest moments and the lovingly crafted lo-fi songs creating a magical atmosphere. A great record. Try “All That I Can See Is A Gun,” “To The Moon (Is This The Way Man Will Survive)” and the brilliant “Lion with A Lazer Gun (Original).”
Another lo-fi record, albeit with a very different approach is M.C. Taylor’s latest record Bad Debt. Taylor, who records under the Hiss Golden Messenger moniker original recorded these songs in the dead of winter in North Carolina in 2009 following the birth of his son. The original recordings were whispered so as not to disturb his family. Those original recordings were lost in a fire during the London riots in 2010, and now, these recordings, which are sparse and rustic explore relationships on several levels and there is a slight dissonance between the confident playing and the uncertainty and hesitation in the lyrics. The folk nuances are a simple and focused and there is a spark that makes this record a winner. Try ”Far Bright Star” (which is about the birth of his child and the uncertainty of being a new father “I am terrified”), “Straw Man Red Sun River Gold,” and “Super Blue (Two Days Clean).”
Another returner to the dropbox is the new album by the John Butler Trio entitled Flesh And Blood. This album, the Australian trio’s 6th, is a work of art. Delicate and rich at the same time, these blues influenced roots rockers have produced a spirited take on their own sound. John Butler can play a mean slide and these blues inspired workouts are Australian flavored. Do not be deceived by the fingerpicking opener “Spring To Come” which is sparse and fingerpicked, it is quickly followed by “Livin’ In The City” which highlights JBT’s blend of rock, pop, and mean blues. Echoes of Stevie Ray Vaughn pervade this record, but make no mistake this is definitely a JBT record – the songs are brilliantly crafted and the guitar playing slick, really slick, so that even if you are not a typical fan of this type of music, you’ll be taken back to Louisiana and New Orleans on several of these tracks all sung with JBT’s distinct vocal styling. Try “Devil Woman,” (this version live from the Commodore Ballroom in Vancouver!) the single “Only One,” and “Higher.”
I would have dropped the Reverend Horton Heat’s new record into the dropbox without even listening to it because the Jim Heath, aka the Reverend is a model of consistency. You know exactly what you are going to get with each record, and somehow it always seems to be refreshingly welcome even though each record covers essentially the same territory. I guess practice makes perfect. What is different about this latest record is that it is a return of sorts to the psychobilly style Heath is best known for and explored throughout the late 80’s and early 90’s. Psychobilly was a mix of punk and rockabilly blended into sonic perfection and Reverend Horton Heat essentially own the genre all by themselves at this point. Rev is the first RHH album in 4 years since 2009’s traditional country record Laughin’ & Cryin’ with the Rev. Horton Heat. This record plays to RHH’s strengths with the rockabilly guitar at the forefront on some pretty amped up numbers (Think Stray Cats on Speed). Try “Zombie Dumb,” “Mad Mad Heart,” and the blistering Cramps styled “Let Me Teach You How To Eat.”
Joan Wasser aka Joan As Police Woman ups the soul sonics on her latest The Classic, Joan produces a bright sounding diverse soul influenced record that gathers an array of elements from do wop, Motown, soul through funk, and successfully blends them into a quality listening experience. If you are old enough to actually remember the great records that came out of the late 60’s such as this pretty amazing trio from Aretha Franklin (whom Joan definitely has a kinship with): I Never Loved A Man The Way I Love You (1967), Lady Soul (1968) and Aretha Now (1968), then you will respect Joan’s efforts to recreate a sound from a time many have long forgotten. The playing is note perfect and Joan’s incredible vocals and song arrangements, achieve “the classic” sound Joan is recreating to great effect. Naysayer’s will dismiss the record for being too scattered as it attempts a vast array of styles within the genre, but the changes of pace and style make for very interesting listening. I sat there trying to predict where the next song would take me….and it was always a great trip. Try: “Witness,” “Holy City,” and “What Would You Do.”
Seattle’s Shake Some Action! Are not hiding who their influences are on their fifth record Catch The Sun which is one of the best power pop records released in the past couple of years. One review I read indicates there are some Tame Impala and Melody’s Echo Chamber similarities, but that comparison is trite. This is a jangle pop record par excellence and these finely crafted sunny songs will cheer up the foulest moods. There is overall a distinct dBs flavor to the record – particular on tracks like “Fall Into The Sky” which could be an outtake from Like This. It might be that James Hall sounds like Peter Holsapple, but for me, easily one of the most enjoyable this month in the dropbox. I love this sound. Try “Fall Into the Sky,” “Between My Dreams,” and “You Don’t Know What It Means.” Here is the official single “Wait For Summer.”
Danish indie-electro-poppers Striving Vines new release entitled Obstacles is a hook laden pop record full of sweet hooks and choruses that were made for top 40 radio. Jonas Miller and company has made a record that falls neatly in the Killers/Keane category with this release, which I believe is the bands third. It’s hard to tell as the only information I found was in Danish or German. The band has apparently also toured Canada in the past year or so. So, there you have it. All I know. A very good elector pop release that makes you want to clap your hands, tap your feet, and sing the sweet falsetto laden choruses. There are also some ooooohhhs as well. Hard to miss. Thoroughly enjoyable pop record. Any of the next three songs I’m going to recommend would in any sane version of radio be hits: “Sound of Tomorrow,” Only Time Will Tell,” and “Cracks.”
Like Reverend Horton Heat, I would have put the new Supersuckers record Get The Hell in the dropbox without the requisite listen. Why? Because the Supersuckers are amongst the greatest rock n roll bands in the world. Their live shows are wild outrageous affairs much like the beloved and sadly missed Beat Farmers. The Supersuckers own this genre of music often called “sludge” but really a mixture of punk rock, rock n’ roll, and hints of rockabilly all finally tuned into a sonic assault filled with killer guitar runs, big hooks and wild abandon. And you know what? Get the Hell has all of that. In many ways Get The Hell is a return to the Supersuckers origins as these 12 songs blast with a punk rock fury reminiscent of their first primordial release. Nine records is the Supersuckers are stronger, faster, louder and funny than ever. Awesome! Try: “Fuck Up,” “Pushin’ Thru,” and “Gluttonous.”
Interlude: Wow, after listening to the Supersuckers, you’ve got a trip to the other end of the music spectrum with the pop sounds of Alpaca Sports. Really – the very far end of the musical spectrum compared with the Supersuckers. I just played Supersuckers back to back with Alpaca Sports and now I’m a little dizzy. Be forewarned, Alpaca Sports sounds like elevator music compared to the Supersuckers.
Nevermind…I’m just taking a break to try to start fresh……
And ….I’m back. As we’ve been exploring in previous dropboxes what I am now calling “nerd pop” as an emergent genre whose forebearers would of course be Weezer and the commercial flag bearer would be fun, this sort of electro-pop seems to be gaining traction. In the past I’ve put in the dropbox bands like San Cisco and Neon Trees, and the prior Alpaca Sports self-titled debut. Gothenburg, Sweden seems like an unlikely place for a pure pop experience, but Sealed With A Kiss is that experience to its fullest. Sealed With a Kiss is an album full of romantic songs all soft and cuddly like the band’s name. If you’ve picked up the debut in the prior dropbox you’ll see several of the songs reappear on this release. However, there is a second LP of remixes entitled Bella’s mix tape which provides an interesting counterpoint to the best known songs. Unlike other records where the second disc is full of filler, some of these alternate versions are as good as the actual release. As I understand it, Gothenburg, Sweden’s Alpaca Sports is fronted by singer Andreas Jonsson with a rotating cast of band members. Try” Just For Fun,” “He Doesn’t Even Like You” and “Just Like Johnny Marr.”
And now for something completely different. Syracuse New York’s Perfect Pussy, on their debut Say Yes To Love occupy a sonic territory that once was popular, became almost extinct, and hopefully this brings forth more like minded efforts from bands who could possess this space. A combination of hardcore, thrash and noise, this record, much like the first incarnation of the sound found on the brilliant Husker Du first album, Land Speed Record, is a breath removing claustrophobic inducing mind bender. While you are not going to make out any of the lyrics on Say Yes To Love without the accompanying lyric sheet, there is something exciting about Meredith Graves’ yelling and the propulsive rhythms, odd experimental turns, weird noises etc all ripped out in 23 minutes. Overall the experience is very compelling in a unfortunately, now, non-traditional manner. Not a pop record, eh? Try: “Bells,” “Driver,” and “Dig.” Here it all is live @ 4QHQ (July 10, 2013).
Los Angeles’ (Echo Park, really) No ( really – a terrible band name) are going to catch some flak from the critical press as they mine the same territory as the mighty National, but carefully listening to debut album El Prado reveals that while the comparisons are fair given that vocalist Bradley Hanan Carter’s voice sounds much like the National’s Matt Berninger and the two bands mine the same sonic territory – lush expansive filled with fine melodies and big choruses – but this record is not nearly as dark as the traditional National spin. There is a Hard Fi feel to some of these tracks, particularly on the fine “There’s a Glow” where the drums take the forefront. Solid throughout. Note: Some of these songs have been around awhile, El Prado collects them all. Try “There’s a Glow,” “Stay with Me,” and “Monday.”
Another Swedish indie-pop band (Sundsvall, Sweden) Oh My! makes the list. Sweden, home of death metal, garage rock, and now…indie pop. Like Alpaca Sports they might occupy the same genre, but this is the up-tempo rockier version of nerd pop much like San Cisco, and at times there are some Strokes elements, particularly on a track like “Scary Conversation” which sounds like Julian Casablancas is guesting. On Slow Moves, the second long player and first since 2008, Oh My! keeps things interesting with a number of tempo shifts that keep the program moving. They have had a couple of hits on Swedish radio, perhaps its time for a U.S. debut, huh? (for my Canadian readers, eh?). Try: “Slow Moves,” “Go With You,” and “People.”
So you know – I was #$^# surprised to hear Phantogram appear on KROQ and then quickly on the mirror station 98.7 in Los Angeles. To give credit where it is due – this was entirely unexpected, because this is a very different record for commercial radio, but I think this is more of a programming decision to radical shift listener expectation as KROQ which one time played the Dead Kennedys, ACDC, Everclear, NOFX, and Bad Religion now devolves into an indie pop station. Heck, the disco band Capitol Cities with “Safe and Sound” now sounds like a metal band compared with the rest of what is on the station. Anyway, following KROQ’s lead, my guess is that the rest of the U.S. and Canada also is playing Phanotgram‘s hit “Fall in Love.” What exactly is Phantogram? Musically it is a synth heavy – beat heavy – dream pop record with ethereal vocals sung over a sonic bed producing a full sound. Much like the name, this Sarasota Springs New York duo consisting of singer/keyboardist Sarah Barthel and guitarist Josh Carter, attempts to turn two dimensional sound into three dimensional. And for the most part, they do it successfully. I’d be hard pressed to say that I could repeatedly listen to Voices in one sitting, but like St. Vincent reviewed later, there is enough going on here that warrants a second and third looks. Some of these songs would definitely work better with a full band, and here is to hoping that the next record takes a step in that direction. There is some good writing and as a pure indie project they should see immeasurable success. However, don’t expect stadiums. On a final note, Phantogram’s record is exactly what it is. That is, the band is not trying to be something else or try to fit a particular formula. They are like all good artists, examining their own souls to find what is inside….and then letting it out. In this case the soul is electronic. Try “Howling at the Moon,” “The Day You Died,” and the tender “Bill Murray.”
Speaking of electro-pop or for the purposes of describing New York’s +/- (Plus Minus), indietronic, the band which formed in 2001 and has released 5 albums including its latest Jumping the Tracks, mines the pop side of New Order with Lush instrumentation over an electronic beat. In the past I’d recoil at the the thought of listening to video game music, but the trick to the latest +/- record is that the pretty melodies stick in my head. In the middle of the night I’ll wake up with a tune playing in my head, and that for the past couple of weeks can be traced back to this record. At first I was freaked out. Normally I dream in punk rock, and this was a violent shift – much like the Supersuckers/Alpaca Sports one described earlier. What’s different about Jumping The Tracks is that there is some rock weight to this release – the songs, often dealing with difficult subjects e.g. “The Bitterest Pill” or “The Space Between Us,” are powerful and well thought out expressions. Intelligent, depressing, and effective. Try “There Goes My Love,” “The Bitterest Pill,” and “Jumping the Tracks (Bonus).”
Presidents of The United States Of America, occupy a permanent space in the nerd rock category. This is the rock side and is occupied by They Might Be Giants, Cake, and Yo La Tengo. On Kudos to You!, PUSA’s latest and 6th album Kudos To You was released on Valentines Day and it is a love letter to the nerd pop lovers worldwide (one song is even sung in Spanish – “Rooftops in Spain”). Traversing a number of weird rock and pop genres and rhythms (even a country shuffle) PUSA still occupies the odd ball space to great effect. For those of you who only know the 90’s trio of alt rock hit “Lump”, “Peaches,” and “Kitty” you are missing out on a great band. Fun, upbeat and fully demonstrating their rock knowledge, PUSA’s latest shouldn’t be missed. Try “Stay with Me,” the awesome AC/DC parody “Flea vs. Mite” and “Finger Monster.”
Mississippi’s Water Liars, third and self-titled album released on February 4 of this year, follow up last years Wyoming with a better produced and fuller sounding outing that at first brings to mind a mix of Deep Purple and country – that is, a mix of jarring noise interspersed with crooner Justin Kunkel-Schuster country inflected vocals. Parts are mellow, much like the beautiful ballad “Swannanoa” and others, like the Kings of Leon-ish “I Want Blood,” great mid-tempo pieces that delicately balance the indie rock with the country. Try “I Want Blood,” “Cannibal,” and the Buddy Holly influenced “Ray Charles Dream.”
It’s always great to see bands that you loved in the past, find new life after the end of the earlier band. Part of playing music is finding success. And when a band doesn’t achieve what it believes is the acclaim it deserves and the shows are not filled, then the inevitable happens. The band dies. When Waking Ashland broke up, San Diego’s We Shot The Moon, briefly known as Honor Role ( but likely having figured out that there was a hardcore band with the same name) formed from the ashes, to produce stunningly beautiful pop music in the same vein as Waking Ashland. We Shot The Moon is far more radio friendly and if that is the bands goal – then they have achieved it with room to spare. Concerts are far more fun when the kids can sing-a-long. This batch is definitely listener friendly. We Shot the Moon, is Jonathan Jones the singer of Waking Ashland, and originally, Dan Koch, and Joe Greenetz both from the band Sherwood. The Finish Line is really a start – beautifully crafted pop rock songs dealing with typical boy-girl stuff, but the album overall is interesting without becoming maudlin. Try, the surefire radio hit “If You Want To,” “Fake Love,” and the beautiful piano ballad and closer “The Finish Line.”
Pink Floyd inspired psychedelic space rockers Wild Beasts return with a new record this month entitled Present Tense which may be the definitive Wild Beasts record. Featuring the unique interplay of vocalists Hayden Thorpe (alto) and Tom Flemming (almost baritone) these cosmic soundscapes are note perfect but emotionally engaging– a difficult chore given this particular genre where these types of songs often come off as cool and undetached. One reviewer gave this album a perfect score ( but see aside at the beginning of these notes) but for me, the dynamic interplay of instruments and vocalists was a compelling listen. Try” Past Perfect” “Sweet Spot” and closer “Palace.”
The second album from Australian rockers Papa vs. Pretty entitled White Deer Park furthers their development of mastering the best sounds of the 90’s (and some early Queen records) putting them in unfamiliar sonic territory for 2014. As commercial radio has gone limp noodle, fawning over electro-pop and electronic based music, Papa vs Pretty produces some pretty muscular indie rock all highlighted by the falsetto of Thomas Rawle. All of this was designed to be radio friendly for Australia, who for the past 30 years at least has been way ahead of U.S. radio in almost all aspects of interesting music. However, I fear this record, which at times reminded me of April Wine!, has several catchy indie rock anthems, that in places hints at Muse, will be lost in the great mass of new releases and restricted radio playlists. However, if this is in your wheel house, it truly deserves a listen. Try” Joan Of Arc,” “Rain Check,” and “Smother.”
Picking up the pace significantly, is Auckland New Zealand’s Clap Clap Riot whose second album Everybody/Nobody is essentially a blend of early Arctic Monkeys and the Wombats playing Queens of the Stoneage. i.e. desert flavored indie rock with some Led Zeppelin flourishes as sung by a very talented and unique artist not afraid to take chances. I loved every track on the album from punk rock inspired opener “Nobody” to the ballad “Sweet Patricia,” through the closer “Once Again.” In this case you can judge a band by its look, so I’ve provided a photo of the band (to the left, eh?). (If this is your photo, I’d love to give credit – let me know. Clap Clap Riot probably puts on an amazing live show, but I am unlikely to see them in Los Angeles. Bummer. Try” Nobody,” “All About The Weather,” and “Sweet Patricia.”
Netherlands based Indie rock act Moss released their 4th album in February and it is a firecracker. We Both Know The Rest Is Noise is frankly an intense pop flavored noise pop record containing some winners, particular the radio ready “She’s Got A Secret.” The guitar work is technically proficient and the drop ins are jarring creating brilliant tension throughout the record. There is a little Joy Division at work on this album transforming the angular rock into a post punk masterwork. The harmonies build tension and the bass is throbbing. There are a number of early post-punk bands that come to mind, in particular Gang of Four, but the sound at the end of the day is uniquely Moss. Try ”Reset,” “She’s Got A Secret,” and “We Both Know The Rest Is Noise.” No videos yet, so here they are playing Pinkpop 2012.
Cardigan’s singer Nina Persson has such a unique and charismatic voice, I’d like everything she sings on, and such is the case here with her very commercial and shiny overproduced disco pop solo record entitled Animal Heart. Sure, there is 80’s disco pop (“Animal Heart”) to contend with and some sloppy lyrics, and some Florence and the Machine styling (“Burning Bridges for Fuel”) but for me those were not negatives. A beautiful voice can cover up minor flaws or song choices, and on this record, the best songs are near the end anyway. Put this album into your iTunes shuffle, and when you hear her voice pop up, you’ll go and look to see who is singing until you’ve been captured. Try ”Forgot to Tell You,” “Silver Like the Moon,” and “Sometimes.” And her’s a bonus, Nina’s exceptional cover of R.E.M.’s “Losing My Religion.”
Another interlude: Finally, I spent a little time one evening last week re-discovering what was great about Ska in the late 70’s and early 80’s. Ska’s intersection with punk rock produced some varied results, most of them excellent. Anyway, for those of you who have an hour and ½ to investigate, watch the movie Dance Craze featuring a number of bands I was fortunate to see in their heyday including The Specials, The Beat, Selecter, Bodysnatchers, Madness, and Bad Manners (who I didn’t get to see live). Dance Craze is great look back at some great music at a unique moment in musical history. So, if you’ve got a little time, give it a look @ Dance Craze – The Best Of British Ska.
I’m going to jump around a little bit ( since I’m writing this on Saint Patrick’s day here you go with the House of Pain – Jump Around) because I actually have to do some work:
The Men’s latest Tomorrow’s Hits continues their amazing run of records lately. Still playing the garage record, this record even’s out the tempos with Tomorrow’s Hits being a more mid-tempo affair, blending Neil Young’s Crazy Horse, with psychedelic garage to produce one of the best albums of the year. The melodies, much like another favorite, Ty Segal, are instantly memorable reminding you of those early 70’s rock records and the writing on this album is uniformly excellent. Try ”Get What You Give,” (With its English Beat into copped from “Save It For Later”) “Another Night,” (love the horns), and “Settle Me Down.”
Another New York band, We Are Scientists, returns with their fifth album, TV En Francais, which for me, is a return to better form from past efforts that were at best uneven. i.e. a few good tracks and a few stinkers. The experimentation of the past seems to have quieted considerably and these indie rock songs are much more straightforward. There is an energy to these songs, and vocalist Keith Murray’s crooning which is similar to Paul Banks of Interpol, is an easy listen. While not a highly creative effort, there is enough energy and direction on these songs to make it drop box worthy. Try “You Make It Easy”, “Sprinkles,” and “Return the Favor.” See them on The Dressing Room Diaries.
Staying in New York, Brooklyn’s Bear Hands second full length, Distraction, is filled with precisely that – angular guitar rhythms with electronic flourishes that distract in a pleasant way the listener from bands that occupy this genre ( that is particularly popular on commercial radio). While they are often compared to Vampire Weekend, that would be a disservice. Distraction is definitely on the rockier side of the indie rock equation. Get used to having keyboards in your rock for a while. Vocalist Dylan Rau has got that pleasant indie vocals thing down ( needs a little more grit on songs like the catchy “Giants” but that is a minor gripe. Ted Feldman, he of the jangle guitar, is the star here. Good stuff. Try “Giants,” “Bad Friend,” and “Agora.”
Cult, the sixth album by Long Island punk rock superstars (who are a cult band to the main stream) Bayside covers in one album all ten years of Bayside‘s musical history by re-incorporating past sounds while reinventing the band in sonic quality. This is the bands first record for Hopeless Records, and perhaps, the ideas on this record arise from the impact of a fresh start but done without throwing out what made this band great in the past. This songs on Cult are refreshing – I say it again – refreshing. Sure the band is a working/touring machine, but the riffs are fresh and the vocals powerful – just like when Bayside was starting out more than 10 years ago. It is difficult to survive in punk rock for more than a few years as the art form is now on the fringe of rock music ( thank goodness for Alt Press magazine) but hopefully Cult will bring Bayside the attention they deserve – in the light of the mainstream, and playing much bigger venues. Try “Big Cheese,” “Something’s Wrong,” and “Time Has Come.”
From the Monkees “Last Train to Clarksville” sound-a-like beginning on “Drive By Buddy”), Atlanta’s Black Lips on their seventh album, Underneath The Rainbow, stick to what the Black Lips do best playing their variant of garage rock, but there is something different about this record – the production values are much greater but the songs still have grit. Who knows what the live show is going to look like, but this record is everything a Black Lips record should have from the blues inflected slow burner “Boys in The Wood,” to the county garage flavored “Waiting” and points in between. This is comfortable lips territory a mix of 60’s garage nuggets and 70’s pop flourishes mixed by the Lips. This is a really good Lips record and not to be missed. Try “I Don’t Wanna Go Home,” “Smiling,” and “Boys In The Wood.”
Annie Erin Clark, aka St. Vincent (former vocalist for the Polyphonic Spree) is an enigma. Four albums into a solo career, St. Vincent releases a self-titled record, and it is stunning. She is easily one of the most accomplished guitarists, but when combined with her crisp songwriting and distinctive voice, she blows away the listener. This is as unique a record which can still be described as pop as will be put out this year. Think King Crimson as a traditional pop group with an exceptional female vocalist. I love the guitar playing – no extra notes, efficient harmonics. Amazing. Try “Rattlesnake,” “Every Tear Disappears,” and “Birth In Reverse.”
I’m out of time, and will try to review the rest. So, until then here is the List:
- Blackchords – A Thin Line 
- Papermaps – Darker Lights 
- Genders – Get Lost 
- New Killer Shoes – I Ain’t Even Plugged In 
- We Are Fiction – One For Sorrow 
- La Luz – It’s Alive 
- We The Kings – Somewhere Somehow 
- Cheap Time – Exit Smiles 
- Shyboy – Water on Mars 
- Tilbury – Northern Comfort 
- Augustines – Augustines 
- Tokyo Police Club – Forcefield 
- Drowners – Drowners [Explicit] 
- Fleshtones – Wheel Of Talent 
- Hatcham Social – Cutting Up the Present Leaks Out the Future 
- Hiss Golden Messenger – Bad Debt [Deluxe Edition] 
- John Butler Trio – Flesh And Blood [Deluxe Edition] 
- Reverend Horton Heat – Rev 
- Joan As Police Woman – The Classic 
- Shake Some Action – Catch The Sun 
- Striving Vines – Obstacles 
- Supersuckers – Get the Hell 
- Alpaca Sports – Sealed With A Kiss 
- Perfect Pussy – Say Yes To Love 
- NO – El Prado 
- Oh My! – Slow Moves 
- Phantogram – Voices 
- Plus Minus – Jumping the Tracks 
- Presidents of the United States of America – Kudos to You! 
- Water Liars – Water Liars 
- We Shot The Moon – The Finish Line 
- Wild Beasts – Present Tense 
- Papa vs Pretty – White Deer Park 
- Clap Clap Riot – Nobody – Everybody 
- Moss – We Both Know The Rest Is Noise 
- Nina Persson – Animal Heart 
- Rigby – Island On Mainland 
- Skip The Use – Little Armageddon (Deluxe Edition) 
- Wild Apes – Wild Apes EP 
- St. Vincent – St. Vincent 
- Real Estate – Atlas 
- Let’s Wrestle – Let’s Wrestle 
- Black Lips – Underneath the Rainbow 
- Bayside – Cult 
- Modern Baseball – You’re Gonna Miss It All 
- Casket Girls – True Love Kills The Fairy Tale 
- Bear Hands – Distraction 
- Peter Buck – I Am Back To Blow Your Mind Once Again 
- Men – Tomorrow’s Hits 
- We Are Scientists – TV en Francais