Reviewed: The Albertans // Legends of San Marco

The Albertans: Legends of San Marco
(Ernest Jenning Record Co.)

The restrained pop of “Marie,” the song that opens Vancouver-via-Brooklyn-via-Alberta group The Albertans’ album Legends of San Marco, is a good indication of the sensibility to come: a subtlety that calls to mind The Go-Betweens, interplay among multiple vocalists, and a sense that this band’s inspirations include pop music that delves far from the rock canon. And when The Albertans are on, they’re spot-on: wrenching yet note-perfect four-minute memoirs, with accents like the brass on “I Want You” and “High Noon” that perfectly complement the song in question. At times, however, the scope of The Albertans’ ambition works against them, though individual songs on Legends of San Marco stand out, the group’s own sonic identity seems indistinct among the well-crafted elements on display.

Reviewed: Reykjavik! // The Blood

Reykjavik!: The Blood

If Reykjavik!’s 2006 Glacial Landscapes, Religion, Oppression & Alcohol was the sound of innovative late-90s hardcore (think Refused, think Blood Brothers) gone epically irreverent, this is something stranger: an AmRep crunch spliced with manic vocals halfway between doom metal and hair metal. In places, this takes it to somewhere close to the over-the-top sensibility of pre-reunion Coalesce. As it progresses, The Blood pushes the group’s style to even more pointed extremes, from the oddly melodic “Repticon” to the Dionysian rave-up heard on “Fokk Nietzsche”. And by the time “Random Acts” closes the album with swirling samples that evoke a chaotic mindstate, that gleeful confusion seems entirely appropriate.

Reviewed: Ty Segall // Lemons

Ty Segall: Lemons

Lemons is the second album from Ty Segall, a San Francisco-based garage-rocker with ties to Thee Oh Sees. (John Dwyer’s Castle Face Records released album no.1 from Segall.) And while Segall is fond of throwing the occasional odd effect on his guitar, his work here takes a far more traditional path than the expansive, Krautrock-fusion sound Dwyer has made his own. Fundamentally, this is a dark, solid selection of a dozen songs, made notable by Segall’s occasionally unsettling vocal delivery (“Lovely One” might give the wrong idea if put onto a mix for your sweetheart) and a pinpoint, obsessive sense of rhythm. The soaring, clattering instrumental “Untitled #2,” in which strummed guitar segues into a percussive workout, demonstrates that Segall doesn’t need his voice to make himself heard.

Reviewed: Portland Cello Project // The Thao & Justin Power Sessions

Portland Cello Project: The Thao & Justin Power Sessions
(Kill Rock Stars)

The name of the Portland Cello Project tells you much of what you need to know about them; additionally, the number of cellists ranges from eight to sixteen, and their repertoire can include anything from classical pieces to video-game themes. Their latest includes four collaborations apiece with Justin Power and Thao Nguyen, and may the only album you’ll hear this year incorporating compositions from both John Tavener and Pantera. But for all that, it coheres remarkably well, with the only jarring moment coming from the inclusion of the tango “Por Una Cabeza,” tonally more upbeat and ultimately too familiar relative to the rest of the album. It’s the unexpected or unanticipated where the Project excels; it also doesn’t hurt that Nguyen and Power have a likeminded approach to songwriting, each of which lends itself well to the rich, textured sound of bows drawn across strings.

Live: Dean + Britta, Crystal Stilts; Prospect Park Bandshell, 08.01.09

I think I’m coming around on Crystal Stilts. An abundance of people whose opinions I trust have had good things to say about them in the past, and I’m finding my indifference towards them moving distinctly towards the “like” column. Seeing them live had a dual effect on me: on the plus side, I found myself noticing the presence of more subtle notes in their deadpan pop songs, which in turn made me more appreciative of the music that they were playing, and has prompted me to delve back into Alight of Night and their self-titled 12″. On the minus side — and admittedly, this is a live-show-only qualm — the group’s stage presence can be frustrating. Admittedly, the Prospect Park Bandshell is a space for which the word “cavernous” is an understatement, but nonetheless: with the exception of bassist Kyle Forrester and (possibly) drummer Frankie Rose, the band did a good job of hiding any visible intensity, while nonetheless playing in a way that didn’t sound at all halfhearted. Admittedly, it’s a difficult trick to pull off, but at the same time: it’s hard for me to feel compelled by what I hear coming from the stage if the band doesn’t look particularly concerned about it.

Headliners Dean & Britta were, admittedly, not exactly channeling the early-80s Replacements on stage, but even playing with minimal lighting beneath Andy Warhol’s screen tests, they never ceased to draw attention. The onstage rapport between Britta Philips and Dean Wareham, the drumming of Anthony LaMarca, and Wareham’s tendency to go for the unexpected in his solos all contributed to the group’s ability to be compelling on stage. The set, including covers of Bob Dylan and Lou Reed songs (Reed’s screen test needed no introduction, and got a fair amount of applause from the crowd), never lacked for dynamic range, and the encore of Galaxie 500‘s “Fourth of July” felt spot-on.

Live: Thee Oh Sees, Golden Triangle, The Beets, German Measles; Glasslands, 07.02.09

Was Glasslands humid for this Thursday night show? Yes; yes, it was. I spent much of the show flashing back to younger days spent in basements and VFW halls under similar sweltering conditions, and occasionally wondering whether my beard had made things much, much worse.

German Measles were on first. I recognized a couple of the guys from Cause Co-Motion! in the band, and while there was a similar limitless energy present, German Measles took that more into the realm of punk-with-lunatic-frontman; stylistic touchstones would include the Nightingales and (this probably goes without saying) The Fall. It made for an enjoyable set, though some of the riffs played between songs suggest that these guys have a melodic side that’s merits exploration.

I’ve been hearing good things about The Beets for a while now, and their set didn’t disappoint — it made for the highlight of the night. Three guys in the archetypal guitar-bass-drums configuration, the guitar in question resembling Glen Hansard’s well-worn instrument from Once, and blown-out harmony vocals on virtually every song. Catchy, energetic noisy pop (as opposed to noise-pop); they’re playing the last Oxford Collapse show later on in the month along with the previously mentioned Cause Co-Motion!, and that’s a pretty good indication of where their sound fits in. The trio played behind a banner featuring illustrations of masked figures and someone getting shot in the face; it proudly declared that they hailed from Jackson Heights. Something tells me that this is a band who laughs maniacally in the face of the “Billy Burg, Meet Jack Heights” ads that abounded in northern Brooklyn a year and change ago.

Golden Triangle were on third: three dudes, one with a mustache that was either amazing or totally fake, and three ladies. And while the intensity that they brought to their set was comparable to the two bands that preceded them, their set seemed equally suited to a loft party as it was to the DIY space in question. (This is, I realize, not a huge distinction, but I nonetheless feel the need to make it.) The band seemed comfortable in their use of multiple vocalists, exploring a fair share of dynamics over the course of their set while never losing energy or allowing the pace to slow.

I’m a relative latecomer to the John Dwyer camp: I’d heard some of his work prior to Thee Oh SeesHelp, but it had never resonated much with me. I picked up Help on the basis of Christopher Weingarten’s review, and it’s been running through my home stereo ever since. “Garage rock” would be the most basic description of Thee Oh Sees’ sound, but it’s garage wrapped in feedback and folding in some esoteric elements. (It’s not unlike how, say, Black Mountain borrow from both classic rock and from the Krautrock artists who were making music at roughly the same time.) Live, it was cathartic and relentless and catchy as hell. Yes indeed.

Live: Lightning Dust, Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy; Santos Party House, 05.20.09

-The Part About Lightning Dust-
Something about space and silence. Back in my zine-editor days, I remember interviewing Ted Leo, whose live setup at the time involved an electric guitar and very little else. We got to talking about Billy Bragg’s Back to Basics, and how that album — that sound, really — was defined in part by the aggressively lonely sound of an unaccompanied electrified six-string. It’s a powerful and memorable sound, one that’s as much about the notes and voice as it is about the overwhelming silence surrounding them. Alternately: it’s negative space as an aesthetic choice. It makes for an odd kind of genre, but a list of artists incorporating this element into their music would also include virtually everything Alison Statton has done, particularly Young Marble Giants and the first Weekend recordings; Antony and the Johnsons’ The Crying Light; and Lightning Dust.

Many of the songs on Lightning Dust’s debut, recorded by the duo of Amber Webber and Josh Wells, place Webber’s vocals at the center of deliberately minimal arrangements, sometimes just keyboard and drums. It’s effective, and it makes for haunting pop music; when the group increases the tempo, as on “Wind Me Up,” it’s a dramatic shift. The live version of the group on this tour expanded the lineup, with between four and five musicians onstage for their set; indications seem to be that the second Lightning Dust album, Infinite Light, will feature a fuller sound as well. That said, the core of their sound was definitely present, and given Webber’s distinctive voice, it would be difficult for it not to be. (Much of what I wrote towards the end of the first paragraph could also apply to the Black Mountain songs on which Webber handles lead vocals — “Heart of Snow” especially comes to mind.)

The other class I’d tend to group Lightning Dust in is a relatively arbitrary one. This month, many of the sets that have stood out to me didn’t necessarily do so by way of virtuosic playing, but rather via a striking, idiosyncratic take on pop: Ringfinger, earlier in the month; also, Angel Deradoorian’s group Deradoorian. Given the repeated blurring of stylistic lines between pop icons and more underground-oriented artists, it’s a fine thing to still hear music that’s both undeniably pop and undeniably hailing from the outsider camp.

-The Part About Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy-
Continuing in the theme of seeing musicians whose work I’ve long admired but whose live set I’ve never taken in: Will Oldham, here playing as part of a five- and six-piece group whose sound veered from style to style, from garage traditionals to Rolling Thunder Revue-era Dylan to something not unlike mid-70s Van Morrison in its compounding of soul and country, tautly played. What struck me the most about seeing Oldham sing was his vocal control: he would lean into the microphone, sometimes from the side, and sing out some pained sentiment with precision. The vocal tradeoffs with Cheyenne Mize, who also handled fiddle duties for the night, were arguably the high point of the night, and it didn’t hurt that much of the set list came from The Letting Go, probably my favorite work in Oldham’s impressive discography.

A high point implies its opposite, however, and as much as the set’s best moments moved me, there were also a few points in which the trio of voice, upright bass, and drums ventured too deeply into restraint. Alternately: I distinctly remember wondering, “Wait — does this mean the next Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy album is going to bear a significant Quiet Storm influence?” more than once over the course of the set. That said, “Cursed Sleep” pushed and pulled and wrenched in all the right ways, and the band left the stage pre-encore following a hushed, moving take on “I Called You Back.” Listening to it delivered plaintively by Oldham and echoed by Mize, it seemed reborn as a beautiful ode to both fidelity and resignation. And the way that its actual meaning subverts the seeming triviality of its title into something both miraculous and mundane is both bittersweet sting and revelation on each listen.

Brief, Live: Pow Wow!; Permanent Records, 05.15.09

So: buoyed by some fine press and an interest in good pop music, I headed to Permanent Records last Friday to take in an in-store from Pow Wow!, whose New-Jersey-to-Brooklyn transition was one to which I could relate. I entered a song or two into their set, and immediately liked what I heard: organ- and bass-driven pop songs, energetically played. My initial thought was “the K Records version of Get Happy!!“; thinking back on it later, I’d tend to agree with the second part of that, but would shift my indie-oriented point of reference to something closer to Chisel’s Set You Free. Either way, I liked what I heard; not revolutionary, but well-played pop songs and a sound that could evolve in a number of interesting directions.

Brief, Live: Cinemasophia, Jean on Jean, Ringfinger; Maxwells, 05.06.09

Cinemasophia: Quasi harmonies bolstered by a massive sound: shoegaze density with some postpunk precision thrown in. Also: some “this is our first time in New Jersey” banter, which was pretty charming.

Jean on Jean: Solid indiepop, performed solo; that I can’t think of much to say here shouldn’t suggest that I didn’t like the set.

Ringfinger: Also in the solo performance camp: Tracy Wilson singing to prerecorded music in a stylized replica of her living room and, in a moment that recalled the times I’d seen her previous bands, climbing atop a chair to deliver her vocals. Striking and pop music; sometimes beautiful, sometimes wrenching, sometimes both. Wilson commented at the show that it had been thirteen years since Dahlia Seed last played there, and it had been nearly a decade since I’d last seen any band of Wilson’s play; it’s a fine thing to see her back on stage.

Live: Moondoggies; Crash Mansion, 04.25.09

Writing about The Moondoggies is harder than it sounds. It isn’t that their music veers into complex, atonal sections utilizing previously-unknown tunings, or that their lyrics reference forgotten philosophies developed in postwar Europe. Rather, it’s the same problem I’m having as I formulate thoughts on the new album from Portland’s Weinland: namely, how does one  get across that this band takes a familiar sound and plays it very, very well without sounding repetitive or somehow undercutting the strengths of that sound.

Live, The Moondoggies come across as two parts Creedence, two parts Rust Never Sleeps, and one part Meat Puppets II. Three-quarters through their set last night, the phrase “the Northwest’s best Southern rock band” also ran through my head, though I don’t know whether I actually believe that. Essentially: they’re a group that can barrel headlong when they want to while retaining the ability to veer off into noisy, haunted soloing. As on their recent Don’t Be a Stranger, the highlight of the set was “Night & Day” — and specifically, that song’s restrained opening, soothingly delivered by Kevin Murphy. And while I wouldn’t have minded hearing more of their gospel-gone-skewed side, the set as a whole worked well, never losing momentum or wearing out its welcome.

(Below: a live performance in Seattle of “Undertaker”.)

Live: Suckers, Tanlines; Glasslands, 04.24.09

Momentum can count for a lot. The last time I saw Brooklyn’s Suckers, on a bill a few months ago with Oxford Collapse and Real Estate, they played a set with no shortage of strong songs that nonetheless felt more like a collection of songs than a proper live set. Their songs are firmly rooted in a slow-burning rock tradition with drone-laden psychedelic departures scattered throughout, thankfully accentuating the textures supplied by multiple vocalists and a fondness for percussion. Tonight’s set used their dronier elements to propel them from song to song, supplying a full-on sense of unity throughout.

I’d known nothing about Tanlines, who closed the evening, until just before they took to the stage. Turns out they’re a duo, comprised of Eric Emm and Professor Murder‘s Jesse Cohen. The music, not surprisingly, is made for dancing: beats both digital and drummed, melodies emerging from a keyboard, Emm contributing sinuous guitar lines; all acting out a constant escalation. The individual elements are minimal, but the effect as they come rushing from the speakers has the beatific quality of dance music at its best.

from the vault: the narrator / “anthems for us”

Two years ago, I profiled The Narrator for Death+Taxes. The piece never ran, for reasons that are unknown to me, and I was reminded as of the writing of the previous post that, hey, posting it here might not be a terrible idea. So, here it is, one of my favorite pieces of music-related writing I’ve done in recent years. Topics discussed include Steve Winwood, George Saunders, Hal Hartley, film soundtracks, and more.