For Chris Merritt, Cruise Elroy has been a labor of love years in the works, built on the solid foundation that was the song of the same title, a seven-four exercise in pop-jazz perfection. Daring continuously to push the envelope of what great pop music can and should be, he’s existed on the fringes of pop, building melodies of the Ben Folds ilk while taking his lyrics in the vein of a less snarky Jonathan Coulton. There’s always been more to Merritt’s music than easy comparisons may make clear, but it’s a good start. Now with the arrival of EP1 and EP2 from Cruise Elroy, the full spectrum of this sound is immediately evident.
While the first EP takes the opportunity to update early Merritt faves “Tarmac”, “Feminine Mind” and “Rain King” via a cleaner studio veneer, it also provides us with the songwriter’s strongest pop contribution yet. Via “The Fever,” which speaks to the search for truth between what we can see, smell or touch versus what we sense might be true on the fringes, Merritt hits us with his catchiest chorus while peppering the musical arrangement with his trademark odes to video-game music and off-kilter kitsch. “Shorty” opens the EP with an extended 5/4 disco-funk breakdown, then segues into a surprisingly straightforward dose of keyboard-tinged nostalgia complete with the best fuzzed-out bass outside an early Ben Folds Five effort. And even the new studio recordings of Merritt classics shine as examples of remarkably astute songwriting, particularly “Feminine Mind” for it’s twist on Billy Joel’s “She’s Only A Woman To Me” — “She’s a killer but she’s always on time; she’s brutal but she’s never unkind,” Merritt sings without the dark edge of Joel’s misogyny tainting the proceeding. And “Rain King” softens the edges of the lo-fi gem via a pair of extended instrumental interludes at the song’s center and conclusion while heightening the contrast between the bare melody with the trio’s deftly layered vocal harmonies.
But if EP1 introduces you to the sounds of Merritt and Cruise Elroy in a non-confrontational setting, EP2 becomes positively revolutionary, evident from the moment you crash ears-first into “Sisyphus.” Thirty seconds in and you’ve thrown out any comparisons to Ben Folds as the band embraces prog-rock leanings much more in tune with bands like Wax Fang. Quite unlike anything else I’ve heard on any pop album this year, “Sisyphus” takes everything that’s great about Merritt’s songwriting and encapsulates it within a melodic structure that demands a schizophrenic arrangement. All but demanding headphone listening, the song features layers upon layers which, peeled back, illustrate an artist coming fully into his own. And four minutes in, the Chris Martin-inspired harmonic breakdown seals it, making repeat listens compulsory.
And if you weren’t already sold, the EP’s closer, “Ghost,” which opens with the best rock intro not composed by Styx, will cement you as a lifelong fan. A freewheeling pop masterpiece, Ghost reminds one immediately of the more experimental side of Weezer (“The Greatest Man That Ever Lived”), a symphonic synthesized sensation which aptly showcases why I’ve argued for years that Merritt is the best pop songwriter you’re not yet listening to.
These two EPs make it tantalizingly clear that great pop music won’t be denied. With the tease of a full-length still on the horizon, take the opportunity to introduce yourself to the sonic world of Cruise Elroy. Nothing else this year comes even remotely close to this, and you ignore it at your own peril.
Elroy was here, and he’s thrown down the gauntlet.
I’ll admit that Brian Vander Ark’s vocals on the entirety of Villians soundtracked my early high school years, giving me plenty of reason to play the album and dozens like it on repeat as I navigated teenage awkwardness. Unfortunately the ’90s alternative rock scene wasn’t built on longevity, at least where myopic, aurally insensitive radio execs were concerned, and bands like the Verve Pipe, Harvey Danger and Semisonic never got the long-term traction they so richly deserved. It wasn’t that they couldn’t write another hit, but rather that radio and label honchos wouldn’t have known said hit if it broadsided them.
Thirteen years after their last full-length rock album, however, The Verve Pipe returns June 17th with Overboard, an album which relights the fire under their blend of well-crafted pop and catch-you-off-kilter rock. With “Crash Landing,” the album’s first promotional single, they show you really can’t go back again — this is no “Villians” or “Photograph” — but you can put a new spin on something and reinvent yourself in a way which is refreshing and well worth the listen. “I’m hearing words no one’s spoken,” he sings. “And I can feel my heart beat though I know it’s broken. Nothing is the way it seems, like being awake in a dream.” The chorus then crash-lands with an impact that launches this song instantly into the memory banks.
If you’re looking for the band to tread water through nostalgic carbons of what you heard while walking those sophomore hallways, you may be disappointed. But it’s refreshing to hear a band return after all these years, arriving with the verve to sound as fresh in the current musical climate as their alt-grunge did when we first heard it in the early ’90s. That the band’s songs feature hooks as brilliantly singable even after a decade and a half in limbo is the icing on the cake. Overboard is the most pleasant surprise of the summer so far, and it’s an album you shouldn’t miss.
Forgive me for being a bit behind the curve here, but Matthew Good’s sixth solo album Arrows of Desire is good enough to be well worth the wait. Out since late September, the album follows his staggeringly good Lights of Endangered Species, bringing a serious dose of invigorating rock music to an audience starved for music of this caliber. From the opening one-two-three gut-punches of “Arrows of Desire“, “Via Dolorosa” and “Had It Coming”, this album announces itself as exactly what fans of Good have come to expect: introspective lyrics coupled with raw passionate rock arrangements which showcase Good’s always-stellar vocals.
The hooks are visceral, hitting from an emotional core no one else among his peers could mine on such a regular basis with this level of consistency. The way he stagger-holds each syllable on “Via Dolorosa” before letting loose with a guttural wail on the chorus: “Wait til I get my head on … wait til I get my head on straight!” That’s what brings us back for more, no matter how long we in the States might have to wait to ever catch him in a live setting. The raw fury comes through on the album, something ever more rare in this day of over-polished radio fodder. Check out Arrows of Desire immediately and remind yourself why rock music, in the right hands, will always be relevant.
Scott Carney and Jacob Heustis of Wax Fang have spent the last decade proving to be the perfect comparison to the region’s weather patterns — if you don’t like one album, or it fails to resonate with you instantly, you’re almost certain to like something about what comes next. Each album they’ve released has taken a different twist on the most progressive elements of psychedelic experimental rock, proving you can craft songs of impressive scope and infinite replayability. They’ve proved repeatedly that the current “single first” mentality need not apply to every band or artist — that, Bob Lefsetz’s constant diatribes nonwithstanding, album rock is not dead. The album is not an art-form to be relegated to discussions of Led Zeppelin, Jethro Tull, Yes, or any of their ilk.
Wax Fang’s latest album, The Astronaut, is a revelation, a five-song suite which does as much to tell a story through its inventive instrumental arrangement just as much as it does through Carney’s vocals. The main character becomes untethered from his ship, careens through a black hole and is transformed into a God, all-knowing and far from human. Imagine Gravity and 2001 filtered through the musical mind of the man who brought us that positively delicious animated rendition of “The Majestic” on American Dad and you’ve got at least a taste of how great this album is.
This isn’t an album which requires multiple listens to enjoy. It requires multiple listens merely because it’s so immediately enjoyable. The key, however, is to listen to the suite uninterrupted. The tone shifts relentlessly throughout, as the story is told through every bit of instrumentation. Carney’s voice is in top form as well, but blasting this album through a good pair of headphones is its own reward — you’ll feel the story being told as though the experience were your own. And unlike albums like Thick As A Brick, which occasionally drowned in their own artistic pretensions, Carney’s vision is allowed to fully develop through this forty-minute arrangement. To hear this chopped into easy-to-swallow “singles” would be a disservice to what is the band’s artistic masterpiece.
More important, the same aural themes continue to crop up throughout the album, twisted and electrified by the same outside forces which are transforming the titular astronaut from man to super-being. The album rewards patience and continued listening by focusing our attention on subtle shifts in mood. So while the album’s quality is evident even on first listen, it becomes better and better the more you experience the telling.
You can hear the first fifteen-minute segment of The Astronaut via NPR’s “All Songs Considered” blog, but be assured you’ll be wanting this album in full the moment you can get your hands on it on January 28th. And while there are pleasures in playing the album in high-quality digital format, this is one of those albums for which the vinyl treatment proves just as tantalizing. I’ve listened to the album on repeat while walking through snowy small-town Hoosier landscapes. But I’m just as excited to sit down in a dark room and let the record spin.
That’s why albums aren’t dead.
That’s why Wax Fang is the best band you’re not listening to.
The Astronaut will change that.
Girls Guns and Glory, easily Boston’s most innovative genre act not called the Dropkick Murphys, have flirted with mainstream acceptance and wider national appeal since the debut of Inverted Valentine half a decade ago. Now, with Good Luck coming out in February, the band easily proves luck’s got nothing to do with it. These are the most accessible songs the band’s ever recorded, and the album stands tall as the best of their already solid career. Call them the best band I expect to break through in the new year in any genre. In this week’s podcast, “Come On, Honey,” “One Of These Days”, “Centralia”, “Rocking Chair Money” and “Built For Speed” are featured. Once you give it a listen, you’ll want to share them with everyone you meet.
Pour some sugar on it, Hysteria‘s done, now that we get the chance to hear the result of Def Leppard’s Las Vegas residency, during which they played the classic album in its entirety plus other band favorites, rarities, etc. If you’ve heard the album itself a thousand times, there may not seem to be much here you haven’t already experienced, but there’s something to be said for a band still out there killing it live on a regular basis. What wins out isn’t that they wrote such classic rock cuts in the first place. It’s that they can still make it sound easy two and a half decades later.
These songs sound as fresh now as they did back in 1987, soaked in the production gloss of “Mutt” Lange a decade before Shania “country”-fied his signature sound. All the hits are of course here on the first disc, in addition to a full disc of “opening set” performances from the band as Ded Flatbird, playing such classics as “Good Morning Freedom” and “Another Hit and Run.” The band had never played Hysteria straight through, so there’s that to consider, but this live capsule succeeds more on the sheer number of great songs you’ll hear. Few bands from the eighties had this much fun with such abundant success, and even if it’s just for the pure nostalgia, it’s hard to find much wrong with this dose of live Leppard.
For those among us who lament the cookie-cutter direction folk-tinged Americana has taken in the current decade’s “pop folk” era — that of the Lumineers or Mumford’s Babel – you may now rejoice in that which is The Muse. The fourth album from Boulder’s the Wood Brothers revels in everything blues, jazz, gospel and, yes, folk. The opener, “Wastin’ My Mind,” will stun fans of the Band who are likely to marvel that this song wasn’t produced forty years ago, and from there it’s a great ride through track after track of genre-bending songs which prove to be more than folk revivalism or obsessive attempts at recreation.
Any album with the one-two-three punch of “Wastin’ My Mind,” “Neon Tombstone” and “Sing About It” is already worth a listen. But the album’s boozy, horn-soaked finale “Firewater” wins the day, that slow-burn melancholy certain to fuel many a full-album restart or furious clicks to repeat the track itself. The rest of the album more than lives up to the gauntlet the band has thrown down, proof that there’s still room in today’s musical landscape for albums which challenge the listener. With three months to go, the Wood Brothers have produced this year’s best Americana album by far.
BAND APPROVED MP3s!
Download these mp3s to hear what has Frank Cardoza so excited.
They’re all yours, all legal, ready for you to hear and become a fan!
Simply right click each link and “save as” to put them on your drive.
AKA & The Heart Hurt Goods – “Dotted Line”
(f. Double B / Nathalie Elam)
AKA & The Heart Hurt Goods – “Put On Blocks”
(f. Nathalie Elam / Andrew White / Nicatine of Free Whiskey)
AKA & The Heart Hurt Goods – “Supersonic Love”
(f. Nathalie Elam)
AKA & The Heart Hurt Goods – “Last Call”
(f. Nicatine of Free Whiskey)
From the land of the mighty Pacific Northwest comes the rumbling of a burgeoning hip hop community, that is uniting all things hip hop. Graffiti, Djing, B-Boying, Emceeing and a growing battle rap scene.
Anamanaguchi – “Endless Fantasy” (2013, dream.hax)
Reviewer: Matt Sanderlin
So… Most of you are probably asking yourselves – What exactly is “chiptune” music?
Remember 8-bit soundtracks to games on the original NES and the Super Nintendo? Well, chiptune music integrates these vintage sounds with real, modern instrumentation to create a very amicable conglomeration. It’s generally instrumental, though some bands have vocalists that accompany their chiptune music.
Anamanaguchi (ah•nuh•ma•nuh•goo•chee) are the current kings of chiptune. One of their older pieces, “Jetpack Blues, Sunset Hues,” has been used as the intro music for the well-known Nerdist podcast for a couple of years now. The band also just launched and successfully funded a $50,000 Kickstarter project in order to spread the word about their latest record, Endless Fantasy.
Endless Fantasy has 22 (yes, twenty-two) brilliant little chiptune compositions. The energetic vibes that the quartet exude begin immediately with the introductory title track, and do not stop or even begin to slow down until the record is long over. Early album track “John Hughes” is an easy jumping-off point – Its nonstop melody runs are not only instantly catchier than you would ever believe, but are strengthened in full force by the metal-level charge of the drums. If you’re not moving in time in less than a minute, than you might want to check your pulse to see if you’re still breathing.
The following track is the dancentric and light-heartedly seductive “Prom Night.” Vocalist Bianca Raquel lends her fitting talent to the track, dueting in an unorthodox-yet-suiting fashion with the 8-bit cartridge sounds. It’s something that fans of the Drive soundtrack would really get a kick out of – In a less dark sort of way, obviously.
Other great pieces like the atmospheric first single “Meow,” the overcast anthem “In the Basement,” and the whimsical frenzy “Space Wax America” will set your melodic sweet tooth on fire like nothing that you’ve ever heard. And electronic music is not usually in my wheelhouse, either.
If you dig fun, way uptempo instrumental music that appeals to the 80’s/90’s child in you, Endless Fantasy is the key to your Delorean. The digital and CD versions are already available, and the vinyl version releases later in the month. Definitely an album and genre worth checking out!
The 18.104.22.168’s subvert pop, punk, surf and rockabilly expectations with Bomb The Twist, the best EP of 2012 you didn’t hear
Play this EP straight through and you’ll feel like you’ve just taken a time-warp back into the classic era of pop singles. “Three Coolchicks” may be the best mock-Beatles track I’ve heard to really hit on the sound the band made famous, while distilling how that sound must have sounded to these three Japanese women coming up in the era of Quentin Tarantino “aural re-evaluation.”
Yoshiko “Ronnie” Fujiyama, Sachiko Fujii and Akiko Omo formed the 22.214.171.124’s in Tokyo back in 1992, achieving a modicum of underground fame when they briefly appeared in Kill Bill Volume 1 performing “Woo Hoo” by the Rock-A-Teens, but their music has yet to catch fire. That boggles my mind in this era of retro-pop nostalgia — the EP’s title track sounds like a long-lost Bill Haley smash as though filtered through the Ramones with a touch of surf-rock Beach Party mix thrown in for good measure. This is the essence of “fun” and “rock” distilled into 18 minutes of furiously twisted pop. Like Tarantino the music ably steals from an era long past, but the key is that filter which is applied liberally to the music to make it distinctly theirs. That alone makes this worth a listen. I dare you not to start singing along with “Dream Boy” as though it truly was the logical follow-up to the Chordettes or Leslie Gore.
Let it all be a reminder of how surely David Draiman rocks — Device’s self-titled debut delivers, “Vilify” leading the charge
There’s something about David Draiman’s inspired take on hard rock, tinged with all which is both invigorating and frustrating about the millennial hybrid fusion of rap and metal, that simply can’t be purged from my ears. For many of the same reasons I can’t stop listening to new Meatloaf records despite the fact that for every genius hook there’s an equally disappointing plummet, I find myself salivating whenever I hear any new track with that distinctive sing-song growl. “Arrrrrrrrrraughhhhhh!” It must be a product of my frenetic rock upbringing throughout the nineties which simply destroys all denial.
Draiman’s latest outlet, Device, has a self-titled debut coming out April 9th via the Warner label, and it arrives at once as addictive as anything Disturbed’s yet released, yet with more of an 80’s-inspired twist, particularly the incredible duet with Lizzy Hale on Device’s brilliant cover of Ozzy Osborne and Lita Ford’s 1988 “Close My Eyes Forever” which manages to blend pop hooks with Draiman’s typically uncompromising vocal energy. More on that in a moment.
First things first, however, as “You Think You Know” opens the album with typical Draimanesque bluster, including classic lines like “Get off me, you don’t know where I’ve been,” sung before he abruptly calls the mystery female a whore while referring to the monsters inside him. He’s like the opposite of Meat Loaf’s usual protagonist, the one constantly in arrested-development teenage lust, searching for desperate sexual release. Instead, Draiman’s songs come from that utterly opposite position where it’s all about living on a razor’s edge between fear, lust and ultimate insanity, a world rotting to its core.
You think you know, but it’s all in your mind. The sickness is everywhere, and we’re losing the battle.
What’s great about Device is the band’s willingness to twist the knife even as they merge Disturbed’s typical hard rock pastiche with backdrops built on layer after layer of Nine Inch Nails industrial and New Order inspired pop gloss. The opening triptych that is “You Think You Know,” ‘Penance” and the album’s first single, “Vilify,” unite everything fans will have come to expect from Draiman and Disturbed, but the new band seems more willing to play with those conventional expectations. “You’ve never had control from the onset,” he tells us. “Go find another lapdog, fucker!” He’s got this roiling tide of bile, distrust and confusion about the past, present and future, and the only way to get anywhere is to subvert every demand placed on the music.
Fuck you all!
Let every minute be a reminder
Of how it all came crashing down
Can’t believe this is happening
Don’t want to start over again!
How can this all keep happening
Over and over and over again?”
At that moment we finally come to a fork in the road — that aforementioned incredible cover of “Close My Eyes Forever” which should be the next single and the album’s ultimate mainstream breakthrough. Call it “Draiman Unchained” — apart from our demands for repeated past glories, the singer becomes a man willing to finally take the album to a new level. “If I close my eyes forever will it all remain unchanged?” Draiman and Hale sing back and forth, and while the answer in the end has to be “no,” we understand where they’re coming from.
It is easy to understand why Draiman has gone to such trouble to tell fans this isn’t an outlet to replace Disturbed — clearly he’s after a chance to redefine what’s come before, look toward the future and rediscover why he’s here to rock in the first place. The remainder of the album continues Device’s experimentation with hard rock and industrial, proving to be way more than a vanity side project while Disturbed takes a hiatus. “Out Of Line,” “Hunted” and “War Of Lies” won’t win over everyone who may have left Disturbed and David Draiman behind them a decade ago, but these songs (and in particular the album’s first four tracks) showcase a performer who knows his voice and is ready to get out there and dominate yet again, blending elements of the last three decades of hard rock into something perfectly shaped for our modern alternative landscape.
It’s not indispensable, but there’s something refreshingly invigorating about this album. Let it all be a reminder of how surely David Draiman rocks, and why we all could stand to take ourselves a little less seriously.
I never cared about your bucks
So if I run up with a mask on
Probably got a gas can too
And I’m not here to fill her up, no
We came here to riot, here to incite
We don’t want any of your stuff
Keep sticking to the script, mane, we never seen that shit
We knew the secret before they went ahead and Wiki leaked it
- – – – -
P.O.S.’s We Don’t Even Live Here got at least a taste of wide exposure, peaking inside the top fifty of Billboard’s album chart upon its debut, but the album deserves greater reach, limited by the Doomtree member’s need of a kidney transplant. Unable to tour the nation’s hip hop clubs and win fans over one by one live, the album’s material has to speak for itself.
Trust me — this is the kind of album Rhymesayers has built its name on, lyrically incisive and sonically diverse, ready to dominate the speakers of anyone who plays it for the indefinite future. AV Club called the album:
… a solid, confident step forward for the Minneapolis rapper, taking his confrontational punk-rap style and injecting it with a dark, danceable energy that sacrifices none of his signature hardcore edge.
But don’t take their, or my, word for it: give the album a listen, from the raw confrontational blitz of “Fuck Your Stuff” to the ominous keyboards and taut vocals of “They Can’t Come,” the album never lets up the intensity. It’s flame through both headphones, a frantic assault on weak-willed radio hip-hop, ultimately indispensable as 2012 stumbles to a close.
Alt-J’s An Awesome Wave pushes the boundaries of audacious art-rock, the year’s first outright stunner
When I first heard Alt-J’s genre-slaughtering blend of dubstep, alternative pop and infectious art-rock, I didn’t believe my ears. I searched for these songs in as many iterations as possible, reaching for what made them so damned explosive. Clearly there’s a reason the album An Awesome Wave is a front-runner for England’s prestigious Mercury Prize — these college students turned alt-music saviors don’t care about the lines they’re about to obliterate. They’re simply out to make music that makes you feel something.
The album plays best as a whole, letting the art-rock through-line electrify the circuit. Still, for such a high-concept piece of experimentation, An Awesome Wave brims full of staggeringly infectious melodies. “Fitzpleasure” on its own serves as their ultimate example, almost Jethro Tull-ish in its ability to morph through countless genres and mini-songs in the course of a four minute pop jam. It also benefits from the dirtiest lyric ever to sneak its way into an otherwise radio-worthy hook. This is Dark Side of the Moon meets Hot Chip, and the mad juxtapositions stack the deck. You cannot listen to this and not want to move! It’s an unimpeachable imperative.
Music fans willing to subvert their expectations and delve into an album which is as much pop as artful, daring genre exploration will find much to savor about Alt-J’s An Awesome Wave. By decimating the line between art-rock and the mainstream, the band creates new horizons for every listener who confesses to give a shit about music as a creative art-form. Google around every corner, layers upon layers make this the year’s most surprising outright stunner.
The last time I wrote about Skipp Whitman he just wanted to be famous, and knew he meant it. Now he’s got the confidence of ten men and he’s ready to take the rap life by storm. 5AM is a rare sophomore effort which exceeds its predecessor without changing what made the first album work. These songs flow together and showcase Whitman’s laid-back Jay-Z inspired grooves even as he further stylizes his own flow.
“Strangers told me I should be patient / angels sitting on both my shoulders / telling me ‘don’t go changing’ / just to try to please anybody at all’ / but I told them I was having a ball!” he raps on “Won’t Change,” marking a template for the rest of the album. It isn’t that he’s changed, it’s that he’s built on what came first and improved it, making for a fresh listening experience. “LA in the Rain” speaks of what pressure there is to “make it” in an industry where you have to be confident enough to say no to the hangers-on who will ditch you surely for every next big thing. The thundering repetitive drone of the backing track makes the song stand out as claustrophobic like a traffic jam, echoing the restlessness Whitman’s experienced coming up in the world of hip-hop, fighting for every opportunity.
The album’s clincher, however, is its most radi0-ready track, “The Upgrade,” which features the best of Whitman’s rhyming coupled with a sung chorus featuring Louie Bello that brings the hook times ten. “Here’s to the people who said it would be years / before I got any music-related bread,” Whitman sneers, making cracks about hangers-on who want to get a taste after even the slightest success. The melody of the beat will stick in your head, and you’ll be singing Bello’s chorus long after the song’s come to an end.
Skipp Whitman’s building his reputation as a brashly fearless rapper who understands his skills and is willing to work to get to the top even if it has to be one album sold at a time building a fanbase on the ground. 5AM stands tall as a sophomore album which avoids the slump frequently plaguing hip-hop artists who experience sudden fame and can’t handle it. He’s not rapping about making millions and getting a stable of bitches. It’s a matter of his smaller goals being reached, or at least becoming attainable. “I told you that I couldn’t straighten up and sitting on the sidelines ain’t enough,” he raps on “When I Let Go.” “Just being a spectator ain’t on par with how I see my life going.” This is the hip-hop album for those of us who first dream big, then do bigger — no apologies.
I’m always glad I follow so many bands on Facebook, because it has helped target the site’s recommendations on my behalf. Case in point: this excellent Oakland band which I never would have discovered had I not seen a note advising me to check out their debut EP via a “pay what you can” promotion on Bandcamp. The music I found upon first listen is a perfect blend of Americana and hints of soulful southern-rock gospel, an excellent way to spend a Sunday morning listening.
“At the End of the Day,” the album’s opener, introduces the band in a subtle way, letting the song’s confident grooves speak for themselves. The Hammond B3 in the background brought to mind Counting Crows, though Erik Yates’ vocals don’t necessarily draw such easy comparisons. But the band really shines on “Let It Fall,” building their strongest groove around a hook which would have sounded at home on a seventies-era Neil Young album. This is just their debut EP, but the nucleus is there — with time spent developing their road show and additional material, this could be the genesis of 2013’s first great album.
Nope, nothing sleepy about it!
ALBUM REVIEW: Bebo Norman’s “Lights of Distant Cities” features songwriter’s strongest material since “Ten Thousand Days”
Full disclosure: I’ve been a fan of Bebo Norman’s songwriting since I first discovered it more than a decade ago via Napster after reading an insightful interview with the contemporary Christian songwriter. I was immediately won over by his detail-oriented songwriting, on “Deeper Still” and “The Hammer Holds” from Ten Thousand Days, which radiated the depth of his faith without resorting to beating listeners over the head with theology or empty praise. Since then, he’s proven to be Christian music’s most consistently underrated songwriters, putting out album after album of heartfelt music of intense honesty.
Nothing he’s done since Ten Thousand Days has resonated quite as much as the songs on his latest album, Lights of Distant Cities, out October 22nd on BEC Recordings. “Daylight Breaking” is his most stunning single track since “Deeper Still,” raw in its multi-sensory presentation of every detail. “I can still see the daylight breaking,” he sings of an experience of true earthly beauty, backed by a propulsive melody of interwoven guitar and bass. “At The End of Me” opens the album with a surprisingly radio-worthy example of his elemental songwriting: “I’m like a promise broken every time I open my mouth,” he sings. “Under the surface, sometimes I want to slip right out of my skin and tell all my secrets.” The theme building just below the surface is of terrestrial experiences juxtaposed against the heavenly. “Do you remember when I was young and knew everything about everything?” he asks, hinting that we have to get over that sense of knowing it all before we can come to grips with what true celestial beauty is.
The great thing about Lights of Distant Cities is how, while writing songs about real people living honest lives in search of Christ, Norman continues to subvert expectations from a pop music perspective. “Outside Her Window Was The World” channels Coldplay through Third Day to create a sound truly his own. The element which propels these songs beyond his peers is the ability Norman has of cutting right to the core lyrically as he chronicles the lives of his subjects. “Come on, come on, set fire — burn through the pain, set it on fire,” he sings of a woman trying to cover up a “broken piece of love as sharp as a razor blade,” mourning the loss of of everything in her life which has fallen apart, as she’s left with nothing but the world outside her window. No one else in contemporary Christian music comes even close to this level of mastery.
For long-time fans of Bebo Norman’s work, Lights of Distant Cities is a stunning masterpiece which reveals more and more upon repeated listens. Those who haven’t heard him before, likewise, will discover an album of intimate depth and raw beauty which transcends its genre to become a pop album about which all lovers of meaningful music can rejoice. It is his strongest work yet, managing to stand out even in a discography as solid as any contemporary Christian songwriter has produced. In other words, get ready: this album is soon destined to rule the space between your ears, as one of the best albums of 2012.
Unless we’re all expected to grade future OLP albums on a curve, this effort by the venerable Canadian band can only be seen as a bitterly disappointing pill to swallow.
Our Lady Peace – “Curve” (2012, Warner)
As a long-time fan of Raine Maida’s music, I give him a lot of credit for being willing to push his band in varied directions over the years even when they were internationally dismissed as being just another Nickelback — alt-rock by the numbers. The band’s early albums from 1994’s Naveed through 2000’s Spiritual Machines stand among the best of the genre. They’ve simply lost their way somewhat in the current decade, as their shifting sounds frequently take a back seat to Maida’s off-kilter political diatribes.
Having interviewed both Maida and the other members of the band separately, I have the distinct impression that the two sides don’t necessarily always work in concert, which may explain albums like Burn Burn and Curve, which suffer from overblown lyrics and a sense that the musicians involved are treading water. The more control Maida has wrestled away from the band’s record companies, the freer he’s been to bog down these albums in sanctimonious bloat and lyrical nonsense, leaving the other members to simply come along for the ride. Maida has said Curve was an attempt to go back to the sounds they’ve mined on Clumsy and Spiritual Machines, but the music lacks the strong concept of the latter, and the hooks never come close to the former.
“Fire In The Henhouse” and “Heavyweight” provide the closest thing the album has to a decent pop-rock hook, and both are bogged down by indecipherable lyrical bloat: “Fire in the hen-house, protests in the deep south … it’s Shangri-La in reverse, time to call the wet-nurse,” Maida sings on “Henhouse,” before bogging us down in the chorus, rhyming change with accelerate, hesitate and calculate in an oddly syncopated stutter-step of banality. No one’s going to sing along with this, or likely even remember it beyond a casual listen.
And “Heavyweight” collapses beneath the forced metaphors of boxing and a world on fire, never really gelling around a concept listeners can fall behind. The chorus, where all should fall together, is a mess of babble: “When all these stars hit the ground, they’ll wake us; we fight not to be weightless.” Even a veteran of Raine-speak has to be baffled hearing him compare this to the depth and experimentalism of Spiritual Machines when there’s nothing to the bulk of the album to back up that comparison. It’s depressing to think he’s so far from reality, imagining this work is even close to on par with the albums which supposedly inspired it.
From there, Curve never finds its footing. These ten songs try to say something worthy of a repeat listen, but continually flop around as they struggle to suck air. “As Fast As You Can” tries to combine TV on the Radio with Arcade Fire with a stunningly toothless hook. “I’ve got a girl got a long snake moan,” he sings. “Got the voodoo in her hips and a God-shaped hole. I’ve got a feeling that the kids don’t know. What the kids don’t know the kids don’t mind, we all work on borrowed time.” Ugh, what a hot mess. If this is the best he can muster maybe it is time for Maida to hang up his pen for a bit and let someone else in the band a try. It can’t get much worse.
“I could be the greatest accident,” Maida sings on “If This Is It,” the album’s closest thing to a “Car Crash” or “4 AM” moment. “I just want to breathe you in.” Those of us who have followed the band for years, we have to hope the band still has something more to say, looking to the future more than they look so depressingly at their past, unable to recreate what made them tick in the first place. Unless we’re all expected to grade future OLP albums on a curve, this effort by the venerable Canadian band can only be seen as a bitterly disappointing pill to swallow.
These five tracks showcase a band fully focused on crafting songs which resonate, and they’re doing it fully on their own terms. All this makes for a Daniel and the Lion half-album worthy of some serious goddamned exposure.
Daniel and the Lion – “Death Head (Side A)” (2012, Independent)
I wrote about these guys back in September when they were promoting their last album, Sweet Teeth, which featured “The Chase” and “Horses,” two of my favorite alt-country tracks of the last year. Now they’re back and the five songs on Side A of Death Head up the ante something fierce. This is Adam Duritz meeting up with a more sonically adventurous version of the Fray, with the radiating pop-rock hooks of early John Mayer. In other words, nothing to be messed with!
“Death Head” opens with two minutes of hand-clap infused folk-pop with touches of Ryan Adams as Daniel Pingrey sings: “Lately he sleeps with us at night with his scythe in my mind. She says it’s nothing, go to bed — but there’s no sleeping with death head.” But it’s with “Flash Flood” that Pingrey and Company lay it all on the line. The melody is a deliciously delicate acoustic and drums combo echoing Will Hoge at his best. “The good sinks to the bottom and the lies come floating back,” Pingrey sings. “Everything is nothing, and we’re somewhere in between.”
These five tracks showcase a band fully focused on crafting songs which resonate, and they’re doing it fully on their own terms. All this makes for a Daniel and the Lion half-album worthy of some serious goddamned exposure. September can’t come soon enough for this listener, who’s already dreaming of Side B. One can rest assured, however, that the wait will be worth it. I called them Artists to Watch in Sepember, and they’ve more than lived up to the billing. Death Head (Side A) is an indie alt-folk keeper!
My Arcadia, particularly on their single “Sail On,” brings to the table a particularly fresh blend of alternative pop which bridges the gap expertly between melodic punk and vocal elements as far-flung as rock and alt-country. In short, this is an EP which will surprise first, then convert instant fans.
My Arcadia – “Stay EP” (2012, Independent)
New York’s My Arcadia hasn’t wasted a lot of time fighting for major-label deals or other outside bullshit. Their latest EP, Stay, establishes the band as one focused fully on the music itself, dedicated to pushing their sound in a direction few of their peers have attempted. Led by the fearless, peerless vocals of Jacqui Sandell, the band merges hard-hitting melodies with vocals of surprising depth and variance. My Arcadia, particularly on their single “Sail On,” brings to the table a particularly fresh blend of alternative pop which bridges the gap expertly between melodic punk and vocal elements as far-flung as rock and alt-country.
In short, this an EP which will surprise first, then convert instant fans. “Sail On” is the immediate highlight, but the title track allows the band, and Sandell in particular, to put an immediate stamp on what their music can be when everything comes together at one place and time. “Dreamer, keep on dreaming,” she sings. “I swear we’ll press on.” This is music for a generation weaned on alternative rock, still looking for bands willing to take a risk and write music they believe in rather than playing to current trends. When the band finally gets the exposure they deserve, it’ll be for this anthem. Here’s hoping Stay is just a glimpse of what My Arcadia still has up its sleeve.
“In the cracks there’s beauty,” sings Vance Kotrla, and taken in context with the rest of Sci-Fi Romance‘s latest album that’s quite the apt statement. This band isn’t the most fine-tuned machine you’ll ever hear. But this is honest folk-pop music in its rawest glory, and there’s a lot to be said for being willing to present the music in this version rather than polish away everything interesting in a studio setting.
I’ve been following this band since their last album, And Surrender My Body To The Flames, and their upcoming album The Ghost of John Henry continues to push the envelope creatively. The musicians fight to keep up with the concept, and at times the individual songs, divorced from the remainder of the album, don’t have the same impact as they have when heard as a complete song cycle.
Still, even if Sci-Fi Romance falls short of giving John Henry’s legend a deep emotional core through folk music, at least they’re out there swinging that hammer for all its worth. When John Henry beat the steam-drill it killed him. They’ll be around for another go, and there’s plenty to be glad for about that.
Don’t let the radio-baiting pop of “Buy Me” discourage you from giving Barefoot in Your Kitchen a close headphone listen. To ignore this album would be a major error. A stunning alliance of Norah Jones jazz-pop excusions meeting Amy Winehouse retro-cool nostalgia-diving, Bev Lee Harling deserves to be 2012’s next big thing.
Bev Lee Harling – “Barefoot in Your Kitchen” (2012, Wah Wah 45s)
I was ready to dismiss this album unheard when “Buy Me” hit my speakers and I focused on the lyrics of the chorus: “Give me your money / I just want to get onto the radio / I’d be so grateful if you could help me / I’ve been singing too long for free.” The song played as a crass cash-grab masked as mock honesty from a musician hoping to cash in on hipsterism’s love of irony, even if it is masked by a stunningly catchy bass-heavy dose of retro-40s meets 2012-pop gloss.
Thank God I kept listening.
Don’t let the radio-baiting pop of “Buy Me” discourage you from giving Barefoot in Your Kitchen a close headphone listen. To ignore this album would be a major error as the remainder of the album steps up the challenge, hitting a home-run in the process. A stunning alliance of Norah Jones jazz-pop excusions meeting Amy Winehouse retro-cool nostalgia-diving, Bev Lee Harling deserves to be 2012’s next big thing.
This is one of those albums where you can’t listen to the singles on their own and fully follow the songwriter’s aural muse. That’s not to say some of the songs don’t stand well on their own. My favorite being the sultry jazz-pop swing of “Robots and Angels” and her spectacular picked ukelele cover of Sting’s “Everything Little Thing She Does Is Magic,” which showcases Harling’s magnificent vocals — something the single does not remotely accomplish. The key grab, however, of Barefoot in Your Kitchen is that these songs merge as a suite, creating a debut no current American pop songwriters have come close to matching.
What stuns upon repeated listens is how deftly Harling takes her retro inspirations and twists them into modern pop. She does so without sacrificing what makes us nostalgic in the first place, while imprinting the songs with her own sense of original flair. Others who have attempted to merge the past with the present have fallen short of their goal, living in the past rather than probing toward the future. Not here: Barefoot in Your Kitchen is an album which reveals more on each listen, making it a valuable pop contribution in a year which has been devoid of many truly inspiring releases.
Just a few hours ago Rolling Stone launched a free stream of Peter Gabriel’s latest, Live Blood, which doesn’t officially come out until next week. The album, recorded live at London’s Hammersmith Apollo last March, is a sprawling double-disc opportunity for the legendary songwriter to preen in front of a live audience. These arrangements of songs from 2011′s New Blood and 2010′s Scratch My Back, with the added “benefit” of a 46-piece orchestra, prove to be a case-study in overindulgence.
Do you think Peter Gabriel is coasting? Read the rest at PJ Media.